Atlanta ups its security game for the Super Bowl

Feb. 1, 2019
With more than a million visitors expected, a coordinated public safety effort combines law enforcement and technology

As Super Bowl LIII prepares to launch into game mode this Sunday, the security planning for the weeklong festivities in Atlanta have been underway for more than two years. And it’s not like the City is new to hosting major sporting and entertainment events. Starting with the Summer Olympic Games back in 1996, Atlanta has been a mecca for high-profile happenings with everything from the internationally-renowned Peachtree Road Race, one of the top marathon events in the world, to the quirky Dragon Con convention that brings close to 100,000 science fiction fans and gamers to downtown each August, not to mention its status as a top convention city.

When it comes to sporting spectacles, Atlanta has plenty of experience as well, having been the site of the NFL’s Super Bowl in 1994 and 2000 at the old Georgia Dome. There have also been six NCAA men’s basketball Regionals, three Final Four tournaments, the annual Southeastern Conference (SEC) college football championships, the annual Chick-fil-A Peach Bowl and this past year’s NCAA Football National Championship at the new Mercedes-Benz Stadium.

You get the picture. Those in charge of public safety in the city of Atlanta are accustomed to being in the security spotlight. The assembled team for this Sunday’s Super Bowl includes federal agencies like the FBI, Homeland Security and ICE, with the home law enforcement team being represented by the Georgia Bureau of Investigation (GBI), the Georgia State Patrol, transportation’s MARTA police force, Atlanta-Fulton County Emergency Management Agency, and the World Congress Center police in addition to the NFL security unit.

Creating a Coordinated Security Team

Amy Patterson, vice president of operations and logistics for the Atlanta Super Bowl Host Committee, who oversees the public safety, traffic, transportation, crowd management and coordination of operations with all the city and state agencies, says that when you are planning for more than one million visitors in your town there can never be enough helping hands.

“When we put together our command structure for our committees coming out of the team that visited Houston for the Super Bowl (two years ago), they got really excited about our own Super Bowl planning,” says Patterson who worked with Atlanta PD and other agencies to intentionally use the NCAA National Football Championship event in Atlanta as their practice run for this weekend’s Super Bowl. The decision was to build the committee and command structure for law enforcement and public safety at the Super Bowl with personnel that handled those same roles for the college title game in January.

“We were able to essentially keep the same players in place, which gave us a great opportunity to understand how to approach this. We didn't want to short change the National Championship (game) but that dry run certainly gave us an opportunity to come out and do our after-action report, and look at what went well, and what didn't go well; giving us the chance to tweak it. It made for a smooth transition as we moved into the Super Bowl,” explains Patterson.

For the past 16 years, Dave Wardell, who is Vice President of Operations and Public Safety at Central Atlanta Progress and the Atlanta Downtown Improvement District, has led the team that is responsible for the public safety, cleanliness and quality of life concerns of the Downtown Improvement District’s 220 blocks and daily 200,000-population constituency. He coordinates and conducts liaison between the 11 jurisdictional law enforcement agencies and emergency services organizations contained within the Downtown Improvement District, as well as the major government entities.

Wardell’s other roles include monitoring crime control measures and security consulting on a comprehensive and inclusive level to the Downtown area, addressing homeland security, emergency preparedness and response, business continuity, and large special event support and security.

He and Patterson, along with others in the Atlanta public safety, law enforcement and business communities realize there is plenty riding on the Super Bowl. But because of the close coordination of all parties and a “been there, done that” confidence, Wardell says the City is ready for prime time – in the security sense.

“Here's the basic tenet to all of it. We do this all the time. We're a special events and convention city, so we have relationships and infrastructure in place. We do this every week. Except this is the Super Bowl, which is like a football game on steroids. The stadium only takes so many people, the restaurant only holds so many people, the hotels only hold so many people,” says Wardell. “We've sold out a lot of past events, but the difference here is this is the NFL is setting criteria. There is a lot more media coverage, so we are all under a microscope.”

Wardell admits that the media exposure heightens the risk potential.  Except for being able to work with the final two football teams participating in the big game prior to last week, every other detail has been coordinated, planned for and implemented by the public/private partnership team Wardell and Patterson work with.

“We have over 40 local, state and federal partners that are a part of this. We have an executive steering committee for the Super Bowl and that is the chiefs from all of the local state and federal agencies that are a part of the team, and that group met every other month to keep track of where we were in the planning process and to help us over hurdles,” Patterson explains. “Then we moved down to a core planning team, which was, really our lead agencies. The Atlanta Police Department is the lead agency, as it relates to law enforcement; Atlanta Fire from a consequence-management standpoint; the FBI is the lead intelligence agency; and then for this event, since it is a SEAR 1, we have a federal coordination team.”

Wardell stresses that the City has followed a security and risk template over the past two years to prepare for Sunday.

“We've literally been engaged in this for the last two years dealing with operational briefings and other similar stuff because we were leading up to the College Football Championship, which we treated just like it was the Super Bowl. When it was over, we said, okay, let's shift gears. Same people, here we go again. So, we've practiced. It's well-practiced, it's a greased engine, and we're getting plenty of support,” he adds.

High-Profile Means High-Risk

The Super Bowl is classified as a SEAR 1 event by the Department of Homeland Security. Which means it’s a potential target for terrorism or other criminal activity. With that designation, the Secret Service works closely with local and regional law enforcement in overseeing event public safety and security.

“We have a federal coordinator and he's there to supplement and augment the areas of need that we might have for assets. That group met monthly leading up to the Super Bowl. As you look at the planning process and you look at our structure, over 37 planning groups – it was incredible,” continues Patterson. “We are utilizing an area command structure for the operational period. We did that because of the numerous venues or entities that have their own police departments. MARTA is a great example. MARTA has its own police department. It's not up to the police of APD or FBI to tell MARTA how to secure their rails.”

Patterson admits that working security across two or three different venues this weekend creates both a logistical and communications challenge, but she is expecting a smooth operation.

“We know we're aligned with a very strong communication structure, where we are utilizing all of our incident command post and command centers to ensure a common operational picture for situational awareness. It's a robust plan and we're excited to get into the execution of it in just a couple of days,” says Patterson.

Having all participating agencies and personnel working a coordinated security strategy is paramount says Maurice Singleton, Vice President of Product Innovation for Vidsys, a solutions-provider that offers a software platform used to run operations centers for public sector agencies and leading enterprise organizations globally. Singleton and his company partnered with the City of Houston in 2017 to provide situational awareness, share video and incident management support for the Super Bowl.

“It's important that when you're securing an event that is this large, everyone is on the same page, so it was important to get everyone on the platform in the same way so as to provide a single pane of glass of information for all users,” says Singleton. “It's important to remember that you are working with a variety of government agencies when planning the safety for an event.”

The New Normal

Times have changed when it comes to dealing with crowd control explains Wardell. He uses a large political rally held in Atlanta last week, that brought in religious activists from around the region, as an example of how crowds are now heavily monitored and controlled. Instead of having a couple of motorcycle police units leading and trailing the march, Atlanta PD used a battery of cycle cops, one-ton Dually trucks and a cordon of police units on either side of the marchers for lateral safety, along with heavy dump trucks pulling up the rear.

“It’s like a corridor of security to protect people from someone using a vehicle to ram through the crowd. Law enforcement protected this moving march with a corridor of police all around them using trucks, and big trucks, too. This is a new normal,” laments Wardell, who says large trucks and other heavy barriers will be in place all around the stadium days prior to the Super Bowl, while street parking and decks will be closed off as well. Streets around the stadium and other activity venues are also being cordoned off. There will also be counter-snipers positioned on and around rooftops in the activity zone.

Let’s Get Physical

The fact that Atlanta already boasts one of the most robust and sophisticated city video surveillance systems in the country, provides an increased level of security for both the Super Bowl venue, the activity zones and other surrounding business and entertainment venues. Monitored from its central VIC, or Video Integration Center, Atlanta PD can monitor thousands of video cameras across the city.

“The Video Integration Center has access to 12,800 cameras, of which probably 800 or 900 of those are city-owned. But the ones they use the most are the approximately 135 downtown. We’re going through the third generation of technology upgrades, and we're just completing those so the downtown area is really blanketed in cameras right now,” Wardell adds. “Especially around the events and the host hotels, the team hotels; all that's covered. We have license-plate readers everywhere now, we have topflight cameras with 360-coverage, pan, tilt, zoom on top of that. It's really advanced surveillance technology.”

Patterson adds that vehicle mitigation with basic 42-inch-high Jersey barricades, and eight-foot temporary fences, to an advanced credentialing system will be used across the entire Super Bowl campus.

“Game day will also feature RFID chips embedded into the credentials, so we know where everyone is and what areas they're entering,” Patterson says. “The NFL also brings in its own extensive camera system around the secure perimeter. There's not an inch of that secure perimeter that can't be seen on a camera.”

Planning for the Unexpected

Patterson says the City is also looking beyond the usual threats. With the abundance of deployed video cameras in the field leading to potential end-point security breaches, along with the emerging drone incursions, she has new concerns keeping her up at night.

“After the breach that happened in Atlanta at City Hall last fall, cybersecurity became a top priority of ours. But one thing that now concerns us all and has us a little on edge is drones. During the college football championship game, we were the first event that was able to get a temporary flight restriction, a no drone zone, for multiple days. It was over the course of Championship Weekend,” Patterson explains. “The FAA has granted us a temporary flight restriction beyond game day (for the Super Bowl). I think that's the next big thing security people must try and wrap their heads around. How do we regulate that? How do we protect against somebody doing something with a drone?”

 About the Author:

Steve Lasky is a 32-year veteran of the security industry. He is the editorial director of Media Group. He can be reached at [email protected].