Making Your Meetings Safe and Secure

By Ronnie L. Garrett

In a world where mass shootings and copycat events prevail, event planners are currently grappling with how they might better protect event venues from mass terror without impacting the experience for their audience.

Gregg McManners, executive director of Monona Terrace Community & Convention Center in Madison, Wisconsin, says, “The landscape of security in public venues had changed long before the Las Vegas shooting. We have an obligation to customers and employees to make sure our security systems and processes are geared toward today’s security threats. At Monona Terrace, like many other venues in the state and across the country, we have had to make significant investments in the building to update our security readiness. Today’s issues are much different than issues we faced in the late 1990s when Monona Terrace opened.”

Unfortunately, even with all of the preparation McManners describes, the reality is that at last October’s Las Vegas shooting at the Route 91 music festival, no amount of planning and preparation is guaranteed to stop every lone-wolf shooter.

Attorney Steven Adelman, who focuses on event security, says it’s impossible to plan for an emergency that has never happened before. “There is no previous shooting like this one. It is literally unprecedented in the world of live events,” he says.

Mick Hirto, owner of TEAM-Security, a top-ranked security provider for events and meetings in Arizona, agrees: “The one truth that came out of the whole Vegas situation is that it wasn’t preventable. If a crazy person wants to do something crazy, they are going to do it.”

However, he adds, that doesn’t mean planners and venue owners should sit back and do nothing. “You have to look at events and ask yourself, ‘How can I make this venue a more difficult or less of a target?’ If there is no resistance in place, no law enforcement, no barriers, no bag checks, et cetera, you are leaving your event and facility a prime target. The more you can do to make that event or facility less attractive, the better off you will be.”

IDENTIFYING THE RISKS 

What are the reasonably foreseeable threats to which people should be paying attention? To this, Adelman answers, “The same stuff as before the Route 91 festival shooting.”

When planning security for any event, planners need to consider the event’s threat environment. They need to understand what’s happening in the world, the state and the local community, and how it might impact their event. They also need to look at the threat environment within their client’s business.

“Every business owner understands their business threats, but they think of it in terms of their competition and threats to their bottom line. But they also need to understand and look at other issues, such as labor issues or disgruntled employees and more,” says Kevin Mattingly, deputy director of the Phoenix Convention Center. “There needs to be a moment where they share this information with the event venue staff. This gives us a feel for their threat environment, and what they will need in terms of security.”

Planners also need to conduct a site-specific analysis based on geographic risks. Risk analysis should include the following:

  • What types of disasters are most likely to occur at this venue (fire, bomb threat, et cetera)?
  • What type of weather-related events could impact the event (snowstorm, tornado, et cetera)?
  • What is the worst thing that could happen?

According to Hirto, everything from whether it is an indoor or outdoor venue, the access areas, control points and more must be considered as planners look at security. And, he adds, “If you’re having an event where you’re expecting 200 people, you’re going to take a [different] look at the venue security than if you’re expecting an event that draws 50,000 people,” he says.

This discussion and analysis should begin as early as the site inspection. Planners should inquire about the venue’s security measures to gain a basic understanding. What is standard practice in terms of security and why? Most likely the venue will have a security plan that you can start from and enhance as needed.

Other security protocols to inquire about and understand include: how extensive is the video surveillance and monitoring, and is it fully functional; are rooms secured by key cards; and can the property track everyone that accesses the room?

And don’t forget to consider the area outside of the facility. What is the neighborhood like? What type of recent crime, if any, has taken place in the vicinity? Consider reaching out to local authorities to gain a better understanding of any additional threats that exist in nearby areas where attendees may frequent, such as restaurants and attractions.

DEVELOPING YOUR PLAN

After planners understand the risks, those risks should be clearly outlined and how they will be handled should they occur. Guidance from site security personnel and local law enforcement will be important. Reaching out to them as soon as you’ve committed to a venue is key.

“Clients should come to a venue with the understanding that every building has a security plan. The challenge is developing their own emergency plan that fits with the building’s plan,” Mattingly adds.

Once you have a plan, educate all staff and volunteers. Review all security plans in pre-planning sessions. Upon arrival at the site, include facility walk-throughs and conduct evacuation drills. Map out emergency routes and distribute to all involved.

Include evacuation and emergency information with all attendee materials and event apps, as well as all staff materials. Detail how they will be informed should something occur.

Develop an extensive emergency contact list with emails, phone numbers, cell numbers and any other pertinent information. This list should include local emergency managers for medical, fire and police. You should contact each ahead of time to inform them of your event and ask any needed questions and give them one point of contact within your team should they need to reach anyone or vice versa.

Mattingly notes prearranging emergency response is critical. If no such relationship exists, first responders will not know where to go when they respond. “They might come to the front door when a better way to get in is the loading dock or back door,” he says. “It is only by prearranging the response that these kinds of mistakes are avoided.”

Creating a communication plan that details how critical information will be disseminated, by whom and to who is important. How will you reach emergency personnel? What about vendors and attendees on-site or off-site?

Mattingly says this is one of the most overlooked parts of an event, but one of the most critical. “Everyone has a plan for sending an email, but you need a plan for crisis communication,” he says, noting the most low-tech or no-tech solution is often best because during a crisis cell phone networks and other technology may go down.

He recommends designating a rendezvous point for facility and event staff and planners to meet during an emergency. This should be in an identifiable place that is easily located during an emergency. “You cannot underestimate the value of face-to-face communication in an emergency,” he says.

Many event organizers design apps to help people navigate and enjoy the festivities. These apps can also be equipped to push emergency messages to patrons, as well as notify people quickly on their cell phones about shots being fired and from where, and guide them to exit points.

“The time to consider being able to push notifications to attendees is the year before the convention or event, when you are working with an app developer,” Mattingly adds.

Perimeter security is another area worthy of consideration. Event patrons now expect to have their bags checked before entering a venue, if they are even allowed to carry a bag in. They know that they will be wanded or asked to walk through a magnetometer for screening. “I think most people shrug these things off as the cost of living in the public in 2018,” Adelman says. “These basic protections of an event perimeter should not change because of the Las Vegas shooting; the security perimeter in that case was not breached.”

Another essential part of access control is knowing who is attending your event, and double-checking identities as people pick up their badges. “If you ask a person for another form of identification when they show up, then you know who you are letting in,” Mattingly says.

In addition, Hirto recommends training ticket agents, badging professionals and other event staff in profiling of sorts. “Teach them to engage people in conversation and ask questions, and to look at how they are acting. Are they acting nervous? Are they behaving strangely? If they are, bring it someone’s attention so that security professionals can look into it,” he says.

For those of you wondering how you can possibly protect your event from the unending threats we face in the world today, Adelman offers this advice: “I’m a realist. I don’t think it’s practical for most event organizers to consider these things. There are lots of big ideas going around, and none of them are bad ideas; they all should get some consideration because we don’t want this to happen again. But if we change much of what we do in response to something that in this case is literally unprecedented, then I think we will have reacted too much and created a new system that will then have to be fixed because it won’t be well-suited to the ordinary risks that we know happen on a regular basis.”

TIME IS OF THE ESSENCE

In the case of a shooting, unfortunately the reality is that it’s unlikely law enforcement would be able to reach the threat in time to prevent it. So, knowing what to do in the unlikely chance this could happen could save your life.

“The usual response is that we are all taught is run, hide, fight,” according to Adelman. “If you can run away from the shooter, do it, because it’s by far the best choice. If you can’t run away, hide behind whatever is available, and if neither of those is an option, fight the shooter with whatever you have. Throw your coffee cup, your phone, a book. These are the rules; the problem is they are hard. There are many impediments to people running, hiding or fighting, particularly in live event spaces.”

“Event personnel need to be taught how to safely move people quickly and decisively toward a safe place. That’s ordinary crowd management. There is nothing active shooter-specific about it,” says Adelman. “But it’s really important. We need to teach the people working these events how to be shepherds, by first explaining to them how people react in emergencies, giving them active shooter training and then teaching them how to get people to safety.”

ADDED SECURITY

While it’s unlikely your event will be targeted by a terrorist, here are some additional security measures that can be employed if needed:

  • Background and record checks on staff, and possibly vendors and attendees. (This is a good practice when bringing in a celebrity or high-profile speaker, which may require a dedicated security team as well).
  • Full security sweeps of the meeting space prior to anyone arriving each morning and again at the end of the day when everyone has departed.
  • Bag searches, metal screenings or canine units, such as those employed at concerts and sporting events.

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