Working Together - More Than Just Protecting a Venue

Terrorists have repeatedly indicated that they are interested in striking targets with the potential for a large number of casualties and/or significant economic damage. Three characteristics of such events make them particularly desirable targets: (a) their predictability (because advance scheduling is mandatory); (b) the large number of attendees expected; and (c) comparatively weak security.

Sporting venues are especially attractive to terrorists because of the extraordinarily large number of spectators in attendance and the live television coverage they often attract – the University of Michigan’s stadium, for example, which has the capacity to seat well over 110,000 people.  This combination fulfills the two primary criteria that terrorists considereal for a successful attack: (a) a large number of casualties; and (b) significant publicity.

For successful venue protection, a wide variety of equipment and skills are required.   Venue protection is a complex task, and requires the special capabilities of many agencies at every stage – during the planning and surveillance phases, to begin with, and in response to emergency incidents.  The specific tasks and responsibilities required include such varied activities as: crowd control (by law-enforcement agencies); the treatment, triage, and transport of casualties (by emergency medical services (EMS) units); specialty operations such as explosives sweeps (by EOD (explosive ordnance disposal) teams); and continuous air monitoring (by hazmat teams). Although most of those units carry out their individual tasks admirably, planning and execution often fall short when different agencies are required to coordinate their responses – which is usually the case.

To optimize the level of interoperability, venue protection at regularly scheduled events provides the perfect opportunity to repeatedly hone the skills required in multiagency coordination and cooperation. Public safety agencies have struggled for decades, though, and not always successfully, to improve their multiagency coordination. There are, of course, many reasons for this – e.g., jurisdictional battles, agency rivalries, and politics. One widely publicized situation was the conflict between Fire Department New York (FDNY) and the New York Police Department (NYPD) after the tragic 9/11 attacks.

No Single Agency Has All the Answers Most tasks carried out by individual agencies are already rather specialized, both in equipment and in training. This specialization makes it virtually impossible, though, for any single agency to adequately complete all of the tasks likely to be assigned following a major incident. One example is the “continuous air monitoring” previously mentioned, which is designed to rapidly detect five general hazards: (a) radiation; (b) corrosive gases and vapors; (c) oxygen; (d) flammable gases and vapors; and (e) toxic gases and vapors.

That type of monitoring requires not only a relatively complicated array of equipment but also frequent and highly specialized training in its operation and maintenance (as well as the interpretation of results). Hazardous materials response teams spend much of their budget, and considerable effort, in maintaining their air-monitoring proficiency. The same goes for EOD teams, especially when the purchase and use of advanced robots and personal protective equipment are factored into the equation. The shorthand truth is that every agency likely to be involved in a response operation relies on several other agencies to perform such essential tasks as explosives sweeps, the detection of chemical hazards, and mass decontamination operations.

It is imperative, of course, that each agency has the ability to carry out its own specifically designated responsibilities. However, its ability to do so is often contingent on the ability of another agency to carry out its own specifically designated tasks. Hazmat teams rely on EOD teams, for example, to neutralize improvised explosive devices (IEDs), and the EOD teams rely on the hazmat specialists to deal with other chemical hazards. The problem arises when both hazards may be present simultaneously. Without frequent and realistic drills and exercises, the operational deficiencies, if any, of each team – or both teams – cannot be detected.

Many jurisdictions apparently believe that the current level of multiagency coordination is already acceptable. However, these same jurisdictions, fortunately, have seldom if ever had to subject that belief to a real-life test. Those jurisdictions that have seen examples of multiagency coordination in actual operation, though, have often discovered catastrophic failures. Two prominent examples are the lack of expected outside resources during Hurricane Katrina, and the communication failures during and following the 9/11 terrorist attacks. Among the other pitfalls of multiagency coordination are various operational and political “turf wars,” communications failures, the lack of equipment interoperability, and what might best be described as “cultural differences.”

Effective Multiagency Coordination the Product of Joint Training Multiagency emergency response plans often do not take into account the need for a reasonable staging of resources. At least one public safety agency, at a fairly large college sporting venue, pre-positions its mass decontamination equipment inside the stadium fence during games. The equipment might be – for a number of reasons – all but useless during or after an actual hazardous materials or WMD (weapons of mass destruction) release. Those reasons include, but are not limited to: (a) the chaos that would likely occur within the stadium; (b) a lack of the secure space needed to deploy the decontamination equipment; and (c) the probability of chemical contamination of both the equipment and the deployment area.

A number of other agencies that rely on these mass decontamination capabilities might easily be caught off guard. It is essential, therefore, to ensure that resources are put to their optimum use, not only to systematically analyze current response plans but also to coordinate them with all of the agencies – both public and private sector – likely to be involved.

There are three keys to ensure successful multiagency coordination both before and during events requiring venue protection: (a) the development and promulgation of joint standard operating procedures; (b) the conduct of joint training; and (c) the scheduling and conduct of joint exercises and drills – preferably at the specific venue likely to be the target. Regrettably, most jurisdictions have only one of these “pieces of the puzzle” already in place – typically, joint exercises, which are usually federally mandated (in which case the potential problems of interoperability are often minimized).

A lack of regular joint training is often the result of funding shortages – primarily because of the overtime costs incurred during regular training. But that should be no excuse for leaving the community without the capabilities necessary to deal with the complex problems caused by hazmat and WMD incidents.

Fortunately, the multiagency coordination skills practiced during regularly scheduled events at most venues – e.g., college or professional football or baseball stadiums, basketball courts, and ice hockey arenas – are readily translated to other complex events and pay great dividends over time. Working together – now – to protect the public at such regularly scheduled events will translate directly into better and more effective preparations, protection, and coordination when a hazmat or WMD incident occurs in the future.

Chris Weber

Chris Weber is an applications specialist with Smiths Detection, specializing in technologies such as gas chromatography-mass spectrometry, infrared spectroscopy, and Raman spectroscopy. He is also a subject matter expert with the Longmont (Colorado) Fire Department’s Hazardous Materials Response Team. His past experience includes serving on the Washtenaw County (Michigan) Hazardous Materials Response Team for more than a decade in positions that include hazmat technician, training officer, and deputy director. He has been a firefighter for more than 20 years and has extensive experience involving hazardous materials chemistry, including a Ph.D. in cellular and molecular biology and biological chemistry from the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor. He has authored several books – “Pocket Reference for Hazardous Materials Response,” “Hazardous Materials Operations,” and “Hazardous Materials Technician” – and can be reached at



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