The New Look Of Vigilance: COVID-19 And The Changing Nature of Traditional Threats Are Keeping Security Pros, Venues Busy

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The coronavirus pandemic has added new layers to the challenge of securing venues and events, but it’s not the only concern keeping industry professionals up at night as more traditional threats remain and bad actors have adapted tactics to the degree that even low-tech, lone-wolf attacks can achieve deadly and economically devastating results.

Nearly a dozen sources interviewed by VenuesNow regarding trends in event security as the pandemic stretches into a second year agree that measures and technologies aimed at removing as much friction as possible from the guest experience without sacrificing security have accelerated in recent months thanks to their utility in the age of COVID-19.

At the same time, some experts warn that attacks such as the 2017 suicide bombing following an Ariana Grande concert at Manchester Arena point to the need for closer scrutiny of perimeter security, for instance.

New actors with different causes, some included under the umbrella of domestic terrorism, have also emerged.

“What we have seen is that these bad actors have figured out they don’t need to fly a commercial aircraft or figure out ways to skirt screening at an airport. They can do things that are a lot more direct, a lot easier,” says Akmal Ali, founder and CEO of Aluma, a Washington, D.C.-based risk management and security advisory firm that specializes in the U.S. Department of Homeland Security’s Safety Act program.

Ali points to attacks involving knives, a lone gunman and one person driving a large vehicle as high-impact events that are “unsophisticated, low-cost and a lot harder to manage, but just as deadly.”

A serious issue with which all venues must come to grips is queue security and post-event clustering, as was the issue in Manchester, according to Dan Donovan, founder and managing partner of security firm Stratoscope, which was hired by Manchester Arena to help harden security following the attack, and consults with many big league facilities in North America.

In addition, health and safety measures like social distancing and timed entry dovetail with the need to secure queues, said Robert Reddick, vice president in charge of technology at Show Pros Entertainment Services Inc.

The attack on the U.S. Capitol points to emerging threats from domestic actors and flash mobs, Ali said.

“January 6 points out that it’s not going to be your traditional bad actor anymore either,” said Ali, whose first client after leaving the DHS was the New York Yankees, whose stadium received Safety Act certification. “The stereotypes you see on shows like ‘24’ and ‘Homeland,’ it’s not like that anymore. DHS has spent a lot of energy in the last three to four months talking about white supremacy and domestic violent extremists as the No. 1 threat to the nation.”

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The Safety Act, enacted in 2002 and administered by DHS, gives venues and others legal liability protection provided they employ anti-terrorism measures and/or technologies. The goal is to encourage deployment anti-terrorism measures and products by offering conditional protection from what could be crippling legal liability. About 30 major league venues have been Safety Act approved, most in the NFL and MLB, Ali said.

Not everyone thinks the domestic terrorism threat is any more serious than the kind of social unrest and sometimes violent actions that were evident in some U.S. cities over the summer such as Seattle, Portland, Minneapolis- St. Paul and Charlotte, among others.

“What happened in D.C. is of little consequence, especially compared to the riots, burning, looting, and killing, under the umbrella of protests nationwide over the last year, but does highlight the need to be vigilant and prepared,” said Damon Zumwalt, president and CEO of Contemporary Services Corp.

“We’re charged with the responsibility to cooperate with clients in orchestrating proper procedures and safety measures for the participants and patrons on a daily basis,” Zumwalt said. “There is no room for a breach in attention to detail, preparation and implementation of these measures on a consistent basis. We have worked with law enforcement agencies over the years, but the changing world has demonstrated a greater demand for additional collaboration.”

Donovan says professional sports leagues have prepared for many potential threats, including protesters bent on disruption and violence, and have developed uniform security standards. On the collegiate level, more work needs to be done, as some colleges and universities have followed the lead of major leagues, while many others have not, he said.

Monitoring social media is one way that law enforcement and security professionals identify potential mob threats, Ali, Donovan and others said, and while intelligence was plentiful prior to the Capitol riots, preparation was not up to snuff.


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Post-9/11, the International Association of Venue Managers offers a two-year course called the Academy for Venue Safety and Security.

The AVSS, which has been adapted to reflect the most current challenges, including the pandemic, focuses on assumptive risk analysis and incorporating it in incident response plans and emergency action plans, said Mark Herrera, who oversees the program for IAVM as the trade organization’s director of education and life safety.

“We want to ensure all venues’ incident response plans reflect the altered operating conditions stemming from the current health environment,” Hererra said, noting that the AVSS includes at least one exercise at a member facility in which building employees as well as academy attendees participate.

Herrera said IAVM works with law enforcement and other government agencies to keep members abreast of trends and tools, adding that securing a venue ideally involves close cooperation with such entities.

Attendees are taught to identify behavioral patterns that indicate a possible threat and to use a guest services approach as an initial response to suspicious individuals. The gist of the academy is to teach participants to prepare, plan, respond and recover in the face any number of incidents, he said.

There’s a comprehensive exam at the conclusion of each year and certificates are bestowed upon completion of the academy.

An online version of the academy is being formulated, Herrera said. He said in the current environment, with everyone so focused on the health aspects of reopening venues, there’s a danger in losing sight of security threats.


Zumwalt said health and welfare protocols require additional training of crowd management personnel to monitor evidence of a vaccine, orchestrate a temperature check and provide on-site COVID testing, to ensure as safe an environment as possible.

“We’ll be ready to assume additional responsibilities depending on the directives of our clients, which could incorporate monitoring health status, masking and distancing when required,” he said. “I trust that with all the entities working on solutions, we will have the ability to fill venues later this year.”

Larry Perkins, president and CEO of Perkins Crowd Management Group and assistant general manager at PNC Arena in Raleigh, North Carolina, says all security protocols implemented before COVID-19 struck must be incorporated as part of reopening strategies for dealing with the pandemic.

“Threats still exist and we must not forget to include these measures in our COVID-19 plans,” he said. “These security elements are layers needed in today’s environment. Even so, we still try to balance effective safety and security with customer services. A blend of elements are needed to give the appearance of easy, unintrusive security measures,” he said.

Jeff Spoerndle, vice president with event staffing and security outfit WESS, which services venues across the county, said health and safety protocol enforcement are duties that will be added to front line staff responsibilities and “it’s crucial to train staff to be vigilant.” (WESS announced it had rebranded to Best Crowd Management on Feb. 22, after this story was published.)

“There are a lot of different things going on in the world that we have to take into account,” he said. “We must have multiple layers to respond to those threats. The threat level is increasing, whether it’s international, domestic, protests, other factors. It’s critical that our staff is vigilant. These are serious threats and large venues are targets.”

The question remains, are venues rising to the newest security challenges?

“Absolutely,” Ali said. “Safety Act participation has been a major factor, especially in the sports world. Professional sports leagues have taken on the challenge and have put a lot of sweat equity into it. I would not consider them soft targets any longer.”
Herrera says that fans returning to events are and will be seeing evident changes.
“From guest services, with all the training we’ve been pushing out, along with messaging that takes the guesswork out (of what’s expected of customers), the entire landscape from a health, safety and security standpoint is going to be different, but they are going to get the best in guest service and experience.”
A key to successful reopening, Herrera said, will be getting the word out to the event-going public in advance so they understand what venues are doing and what’s expected of guests.
Security personnel tasked with enforcing protocols like mask wearing and distancing will have to strike a balance between making sure rules are followed while not escalating interactions to the point of confrontation.
Consultant Bill Squires, former manager of old Giants Stadium and Cleveland Browns Stadium, now FirstEnergy Stadium, said fans not in compliance should be given a chance to “mask up” and properly distance themselves. Everyone must get on board while the pandemic continues and ultimately removing the offender may well be the only recourse, Squires said.
Social distancing and mask wearing are likely to remain even after the pandemic fades, he said.
Squires is a COVID survivor who works the Super Bowl annually for S.A.F.E. Management, the NFL’s security provider for the event. Squires worked the event level at Raymond James Stadium for this year’s game in Tampa. He said distancing and mask wearing was uniformly evident among stadium employees working the event.
“I’ve been in this industry for 34 years, since 1987, and I’ve been asked if I will go back to sports venues after what I experienced with my battle with COVID,” Squires said. “Would I go back with my family? Absolutely, because I know my peers are going to take every precaution and make sure it’s a safe environment. But when I go back, I will be wearing a face covering.”