Successfully managing event safety at large community gatherings is critical for public safety officials. Unfortunately, several recent incidents have made the public question their security at large events -- forcing public officials to tighten their grip on suspicious activities while balancing the act of keeping a low profile and maintaining the public's trust. Some of these events include:
- Ariana Grande Concert
In May 2017, an Ariana Grande concert in Manchester, U.K. was the target of a bombing that killed 22 people, and injured 500 more. The attack called the safety of a large event into question, and forced safety management teams and law enforcement to reevaluate procedures in place and improve security for large arena events.
- Unite the Right White Supremacist Rally
In August 2017, the “Unite the Right” white supremacist rally and subsequent counterprotest in Charlottesville, Virginia drew similar security concerns. A state of emergency was declared in Virginia after an assailant drove a vehicle down a city street, killing counter-protestor Heather Heyer and injuring 19 others.
- Las Vegas Outdoor Country Music Festival
The Las Vegas shooting in October 2017, in which a shooter targeted an outdoor country music festival, killing 58 people and injuring hundreds more, is considered the worst mass shooting in United States history, and created new concerns about music festivals and other public events as well.
These tragic attacks have inspired a greater discourse about security and large-event safety, and public safety teams are developing best practices for managing security in public spaces. The public will continue to distrust large events and crowd situations, and law enforcement and other safety management teams are seeking out new strategies for keeping communities safe.
Trends Changing Large-Scale Event Safety
Thanks to recent advancements in technology and safety resources, five emerging trends are revolutionizing preparedness and safety management at large-scale community events.
1. In the Skies: Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAVs) or drones as they’re most commonly known have made their way above the crowds at many community events. So far, nearly 350 state and local police departments and other emergency management divisions have added drones to their event safety inventory and that number is rapidly increasing. Public safety drones give public officials the opportunity to monitor event activities from above and alert on-the-ground staff to investigate any suspicious activity. The stability and image quality of drone vigilance make them ideal for surveying crowds.
The drone industry is still navigating regulations from the Federal Aviation Administration, which is hesitant to allow drones in commercial airspace. The organization worries about disrupting the space where 30,000 commercial planes fly every day. However, the emergency capabilities of these devices are certain to influence policy decisions. UAV devices have already been deployed in a variety of disaster situations – after Hurricane Maria, drones were used to deliver supplies to the island. Drones also have a lot of potential for keeping communities safe. In Wichita Falls, Texas, the Fire Department uses drones as a thermal imaging camera in emergency situations.
2. On the Web: Monitoring social media and dark web activity is becoming an important step in the event safety preparedness checklist. Information found on the web can provide better insight into the potential behavior and intentions of event attendees, especially if the event is focused on sensitive or political topics. It can also help public officials plan ahead to ensure they have enough event safety staff by estimating the total number of attendees listed on social media event pages.
In a study conducted by LexisNexis Risk Solutions, 63 percent of law enforcement said they use social media for criminal investigations, and 51 percent said that social media is used for anticipating crimes. In anticipation of high-profile events, from Hollywood award shows to political rallies, law enforcement with carefully monitor activity on social media. For example, in anticipation of the Emmy Awards, the Los Angeles Police Department used social media to keep an eye on potential threats for the awards show, but also to monitor the related protests and rallies planned nearby.
3. From the Crowd: Empowering the public to take ownership of their own safety and of others is critical to safety planning. Communication platforms made available through 2-way anonymous tip texting allow the public to be that extra set of eyes and ears at events. This can also help police covertly diffuse a potentially dangerous situation without causing panic amongst the crowd.
There is strong anecdotal and numerical data behind crowdsourcing information. When chaos erupted at a Pumpkin Harvest Festival in Keene State University in New Hampshire, law enforcement used crowd-sourced information to apprehend the individuals causing the destruction. According to PoliceOne, bystander video footage was responsible for 25 of the over 100 arrests made. The Boston Marathon Bombing is another example of the power of the web, where thousands of videos and photos were sent to police in the hope of catching the bombing suspects. “The Internet is a force multiplier," Lenny DePaul, the retired former chief inspector of the U.S. Marshals service said in an interview with NBC News. "We can't knock on one million doors, so the speed of the Internet is a major advantage when it comes to sharing information."
4. Through Mobile Technology: Advancements in mobile technology including cell phones and smart watches have made it possible to communicate with targeted audiences through many different methods. Temporary SMS opt-in systems can be set up for one-time events as what Mackinac County in Michigan did for their annual community event, the Mackinac Bridge Walk. Event attendees can enjoy their activities with the peace of mind knowing they will be immediately informed of any critical incident such as an active shooter or a severe weather-related situation, as well as be instructed on what to do and/or where to go.
In the small city of Salem, MA, record crowds turned out during the Halloween season. In order to manage this upswing in tourism, the Police Department implemented several new safety strategies. Technology proved especially useful, and the department established an anonymous text-a-tip line. The station encouraged visitors to “see something say something”, and it proved successful. "We've been getting calls for abandoned packages and suspicious people walking around," Salem Police Captain Conrad Prosniewski told the Salem news. “I think people are, in general, attuned to being our eyes and ears out there, something that's very important on our end."
5. With Crowd Control Tools: Physical barriers such as temporary barricades are standard equipment at large-scale events and have proven to be effective in events such as Boston’s Free Speech Rally. However, even separation between two opposing groups at a political event can fail, as was the case in Charlottesville, VA. It’s incidents like this that are unfortunately bringing forth new more extreme crowd control technologies that serve both offensive and defensive purposes.
Highlighting the Salem, MA police department once again during Halloween, their plan involves dividing the city into five sectors, and having a command structure and assigned offices in place for each discrete location. This makes security more manageable, and prevents officers from becoming overwhelmed or distracted. The city also closes several streets adjacent to the Halloween festivities to avoid vehicle-related incidents. Given the upswing in the number of car-related terror attacks to occur in the past several years, city planning around large community events of this sort is likely to become common practice. In preparation for future festivities, the City Council recently greenlighted the installation of cameras in the four of Salem’s major parks, which will connect to the Police Department, and allow law enforcement to keep an eye on and protect high traffic areas of the city without draining resources.
Despite thorough planning, maintaining safety at large events will continue to be a struggle for public officials. By leveraging community relationships and the latest advancements in safety technology, the planning and management process will increase the likelihood of a safe event for all attendees and emergency response officials.