Security on demand

New technology tools come to the high-stakes world of special-event security

It could have been a scene from an action movie, but it was all too real. Last summer, when President Bush's motorcade was on its way to Washington University for the presidential debate in St. Louis, an air conditioner in a nearby building caught fire. Normally, handling such an incident would be routine for firefighters. But in the post-Sept. 11, 2001, world, in which stolen firefighting apparatuses and uniforms could become tools in a terrorist attack, authorities had to alert the Secret Service that the firetrucks racing toward the presidential motorcade were the real thing.

"Lead cars in the motorcade are trained to take out a threat," said Nick Gragnani, who was deputy director of St. Louis County's Office of Emergency Management and part of the security management team when the incident occurred. "Had we not communicated at that instant that the firetrucks were viable, some serious issues could have developed."

Fortunately, thanks to months of planning and a high-tech communications system that integrated messages from many federal and local agencies, word reached the motorcade in time. But the incident showed that no matter how much officials plan, special events require a blend of security protocols and technology to enable officials to make snap decisions. Sometimes, as in St. Louis last summer, a local official's quick action could avert disaster.

Formal protocols

Special-event security is becoming an increasingly important specialty. It is a factor at national political events, such as Bush's second inauguration or a State of the Union address. It's called for whenever events, such as the Super Bowl or the Olympic Games, draw large crowds.

Sometimes officials have months or even years to prepare for the event; other times, security forces must mobilize on a moment's notice, such as last summer's state funeral for President Reagan.

In any case, events involving top-echelon political leaders and tens of thousands of onlookers are prime targets for terrorist attacks.

Since 1998, the highest level special events are deemed National Special Security Events (NSSEs), a distinction now conferred by the Homeland Security Department. The NSSE designation sets off a series of security protocols that require establishing a steering committee of federal agencies and local officials in the affected geographical area.

The ultimate goal is to centrally organize potentially dozens of law enforcement and public safety organizations into an effective ad hoc security force for the duration of the event, said Gerald Cavis, who was director of security for the Commission on Presidential Debates. Now a security consultant, Cavis is a retired Secret Service official who served on President Clinton's security detail and was an architect of the major events planning protocols for NSSEs.

Lead protective responsibility in NSSEs falls to the Secret Service, backed by the FBI, which acts as the lead investigator of criminal activity, and FEMA, which would manage mass casualties that result from nuclear, chemical or biological attacks. Even if an event doesn't reach NSSE status, it may attract an impressive security force, as in the St. Louis debate. Protection there required the coordination of police and fire departments from four jurisdictions, in addition to the Secret Service and the FBI.

The president does not have to be involved for an event to be designated an NSSE, Cavis said. If the governor of the host state applies for that status, DHS officials meet with representatives from other agencies involved to evaluate the need. The criteria include the event's political significance, attendance by world leaders, the size of the expected audience, media coverage, the history of significant protests or terrorist threats at similar gatherings, and new information from the intelligence community that raises concerns.

Security goes high-tech

In addition to greater expertise, a new attitude permeates special-event security forces. "There's much more willingness to take cutting-edge technology from the military and apply it in a civilian setting," Cavis said.

The military is also becoming a more common participant in domestic security, with fighter aircraft and other resources monitoring the sky over a special event, he said. "We're now looking at a combination of military and civilian assets within the continental U.S.," he said. "The military is at the table in larger capacity than ever before."

Nonmilitary technology is also having an impact. Such technology includes a wide array of devices, ranging from communications systems to explosives detectors, video surveillance systems and even atmospheric monitors that use computer models to predict the movement of airborne chemical or biological agents.

A number of information technology companies are gearing their products and services for special-event security applications. For example, cellular services provider Nextel now has an emergency response team that can quickly supplement wireless communications for special events, such as the last presidential inauguration, G8 economic summit or Reagan's state funeral.

The team's equipment includes satellite cell sites on light trucks, usually called SatColts, which can quickly move to target areas to provide additional wireless phone coverage for public safety officials. Supplemental SatColt service, in addition to permanent communications towers, helped meet a demand spike at Bush's second inauguration.

"An inauguration is like a wedding on steroids," said Matt Foosaner, senior director of Nextel's emergency response team. "The challenge wasn't that [Washington,] D.C., had poor existing cellular coverage. It was that hundreds of thousands of people were standing along the parade route all using their camera phones and competing with the military and civilian law enforcement communications."

A similar capacity is part of networking hardware vendor Cisco Systems' strategy to integrate federal, state and local communications systems, said Peter Fritz, senior manager for the company's homeland security team. The security group is using IP technology to connect communications services among security vehicles and command and control centers.

"With [land mobile radio] wireless communications over IP, we can take radio traffic from disparate systems and make it so people can talk to each other," Fritz said.

Establishing communications is critical, but other technologies serve equally important purposes. Several devices allow authorities to detect explosives or other dangerous materials.

For example, General Electric's security division markets three versions of detection equipment, which sniffs the air to detect traces of explosive materials. Developers are evaluating a permanent walk-through detector for use by the Transportation Security Administration at airports. Company engineers also build smaller desktop and portable models that can be quickly set up to guard special events.

Explosive materials leave a distinct signature of trace elements on backpacks, hands or objects that bomb makers have touched, sometimes long after the original contact. "A person may be glowing, even though he doesn't have an explosive on him," said Kelly Collins, vice president of government and homeland security for GE's security division.

Although bomb-sniffing dogs have been used for this purpose, Collins said high-tech solutions are not only more accurate but also can tell security officials what type of explosive may be present.

Managing organized chaos

Explosives didn't disrupt the St. Louis presidential debate last fall, but security officials still had their hands full. Four jurisdictions, ranging from university to county and municipal police departments, were responsible for protecting Washington University. Add the Secret Service, the FBI and other federal agencies, plus the assorted local fire departments and public safety organizations, and communications among all these groups became a complex challenge.

Voice communications proved to be a relatively easy-to-solve problem. Once organizers agreed on a single emergency channel that most of the radios and walkie-talkies used by area law enforcement could access, the next step was borrowing enough compatible units.

A stickier problem was how to assimilate the flood of messages that would be coming across those communications devices to command center staff. Officials needed an accurate picture of planned events, such as street closings, and unplanned ones, such as the fire call.

"We wanted to be sure key decision-makers were getting all the information they needed," said Gragnani, who has recently become project manager for the St. Louis area's Urban Area Security Initiative, which manages DHS grants. "If a life-or-death situation starts to unfold and they're searching for information, we've got a serious issue."

Security officials chose E-Sponder, a secure Web portal technology from Convergence Communications. E-Sponder is based on Microsoft's SharePoint Portal Server collaboration software. During preplanning, the portal stored event schedules on Web pages, eliminating the need to e-mail the information to security employees, which would have opened security holes and made version control difficult.

"We had one document in one place," Gragnani said. "That was a big advantage."

On debate day, the portal displayed status reports of street closings, motorcade arrivals and other activities using information relayed from the street to the command center via radio reports.

If an intersection along the motorcade route wasn't blocked off at its appointed time, for example, the portal automatically flashed an on-screen alarm to alert command center managers. The Web server provided a welcome mix of practical and symbolic support.

"Even though each group was legally separate, they had to all become one for this period of time," Gragnani said.

Political events aren't the only high-risk security projects. The Super Bowl, which attracts more than 100,000 fans for pregame and game-day activities, is also considered a prime terrorist target. In Jacksonville, Fla., host of Super Bowl XXXIX, officials relied on the Jacksonville County Sheriff's Office and 30 other federal, state, and local law enforcement agencies to secure the event.

Beth Horn, IT officer for the sheriff's office, likens Super Bowl preparations to those for the Year 2000 New Year's Eve mayhem. "You do so much planning but hope nothing happens," she said. For 18 months preceding the Super Bowl, she attended weekly planning meetings along with about 120 others representing all the various agencies that were involved on game day.

An important technology component in the Super Bowl command centers were the video feeds from scores of surveillance cameras that sent images at 10 frames per second from lookout posts within Jacksonville's Alltel Stadium; on bridges, buildings and fixtures throughout the city; and even from helicopters that hovered over the area on game day. Approximately 30 security officials in a handful of command centers viewed the images on video monitors. If something caught their attention, they could pan or zoom on the subject or stop and replay specific sequences to get a better look at possible security problems.

The surveillance gear was one tool in an arsenal that officials used to communicate the big picture, Horn said. "The biggest challenge was getting the vast number of people involved all on the same page."

Although special-event security officials have successful protocols and increasingly sophisticated technologies in place to help them deter or respond to threats, the nagging sense of the unknown keeps complacency at bay.

"The biggest factors in securing special events are communication, cooperation and coordination," Cavis said. "After the three Cs, you just have meeting after meeting after meeting. No matter how much time you have, you never feel like you're able to plan for every event as much as you'd like."

Joch is a business and technology writer based in New England. He can be reached at [email protected].

Street-smart geek

Security officials who live by the technology sword may also find themselves victims of it. Technology-savvy cyberterrorists are now capable of hacking into the computer systems to steal or alter data, launch denial-of-service attacks on Web sites that can disrupt special events, or even control elevators and internal security systems of computer-managed "smart" buildings.

Those concerns prompted the Secret Service to create the Electronic Crime Special Agent program, which trains a new breed of security agent.

The program attempts to blend two divergent specialties into a new kind of "super cop," said Gerald Cavis, a security consultant and retired Secret Service official. "The program combines into one person the skills of a classic pocket-protector geek and the investigative skills" of a street-smart cop, Cavis said.

These specially trained experts now work for the Secret Service, other federal agencies and local law enforcement organizations. "Any time there's a high-level visit, electronic-crime task forces are part of the advance team to evaluate the cybersecurity of a given site," he said. "At [January's inauguration ceremonies], there were numerous cyber investigators monitoring and controlling computer systems and making sure information was flowing back and forth safely. That's a huge part of our protective responsibility today."

— Alan Joch


  • Government Innovation Awards
    Government Innovation Awards -

    Congratulations to the 2021 Rising Stars

    These early-career leaders already are having an outsized impact on government IT.

  • Acquisition
    Shutterstock ID 169474442 By Maxx-Studio

    The growing importance of GWACs

    One of the government's most popular methods for buying emerging technologies and critical IT services faces significant challenges in an ever-changing marketplace

Stay Connected