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The Main Event

Whether it's a famous or controversial person's speech, a rival sports matchup, or a huge community event taking place on campus, a special occasion calls for a comprehensive security plan.
University Business, Apr 2009

IN THE LIFE OF A CAMPUS SECURITY HEAD, THERE'S REALLY no such thing as “just another special event.” Even for Stan Skipworth, chief of university police at California State University, Long Beach, whose force deals regularly enough with major political figures visiting and celebrities dropping by for commencement. Four members of the 28-officer force are primarily responsible for dignitary protection, and four more are trained for it.

They know their stuff?so much so that when Arnold Schwarzenegger and Hillary Clinton came to campus on separate occasions, their protection teams wound up deferring to the campus team. “Their people recognized our track record in doing dignitary protection. We know what our backyard is. They trusted us,” Skipworth explains.

His team also knows that “a great job is when nothing happens.” Every event requires its own plan to keep guests safe. The visits from Clinton, then first lady, and Schwarzenegger, once prior to his being elected California governor and once after, meant “an awful lot of front-loaded work,” Skipworth says. Campus police were available to the Secret Service (for Clinton) and the California Highway Patrol (for Schwarzenegger) “literally around the clock.” From event details to intelligence about off-campus areas, there was much to discuss. Clinton would speak to a larger audience and have more than one destination while on campus. Schwarzenegger would want more spontaneous interaction with the audience, including a classroom visit during his second campus appearance.

Contrasts aside, every event’s plan must include contingencies to handle scenarios ranging from changes in schedule to weather, medical, or terrorism-related emergencies. “It’s kind of like the old analogy, every boxer has a plan until he steps into the ring,” Skipworth says. “Having a plan is extraordinarily important to us, but just as important as the plan is knowing we are prepared to deviate from that plan.”

'It's not like you can take your policies and procedures and blindly move them from one year to the next.' -Cheryl Elliot, Emory University

Security teams at campuses across the country share that philosophy, considering every what-if, reaching out to experts, and using resources to their fullest to help ensure that event attendees can focus on the experience. Following are two-dozen smart moves administrators can make to prepare for a major campus event.

1. Form the planning team early. It should include representatives from the host department /organization, facilities, and security. Getting security involved early is key. If major decisions have been made before that, “the chances of something going wrong escalate,” cautions Dan O’Neill, president of Boston-based Applied Risk Management, a global risk management and security engineering firm that does about one-quarter of its business in higher ed.

2. Coordinate with local authorities. The campus is not an island. Depending on the event’s size, local, state, and federal agencies may need to be involved. For example, when Marist College (N.Y.) hosted the Empire State Games, an Olympics-like event, in 2005, Director of Safety and Security John T. Gildard and his team worked with outside police agencies and other groups. The preparation was similar to a commencement, he says, but the four-day event also involved housing athletes, devising a more intricate parking and shuttle bus plan, and providing simultaneous coverage at multiple sports venues at and near Marist.

3. Budget for services. Typically the hosting organization covers event-related security costs. That’s not to say that hosts won’t get sticker shock, though. When a group at Furman University (S.C.) extended an invitation to a controversial speaker once, organizers sealed the deal without realizing the hefty price tag of the five security guards requested for protection. “He’d been beat up before on other campuses,” explains Director of Public Safety Bob Miller, who had to break the news to the group that the added protection was in the contract and not negotiable. Skipworth of CSULB notes that for a dignitary’s security, “it’s not uncommon for costs to run a few thousand dollars.”

4. Give (or make the case for) top-down support. “I’ve been around a lot of presidents and I think their attitude is fantastic. They’ll provide us with the tools needed to be successful,” says Lou Marciani, director of the Center for Spectator Sports Security Management at The University of Southern Mississippi. Miller, who also does higher ed consulting work, agrees. “They defer to the people they’ve hired, and a good president should do that.” Still, notes O’Neill, “sometimes when it comes to security, people think they’re experts and they might interject their own opinion into security matters.” In Mark Savage’s experience as general manager of Summit Security Services, which works with institutions in and around New York City, mid-level staff are more likely to give conflicting directions at times.

5. Consider your security infrastructure. This is another conversation for top officials. Free assessments such as those offered by ADT Security Services can identify a plan’s strengths and weaknesses as well as drill down to help decide how many PA systems or surveillance cameras are needed, explains Patrick Fiel, ADT’s education safety advisor and a former senior law enforcement advisor at the United States Military Academy at West Point.

6. Reach out to peers. Vanderbilt University (Tenn.) used University of Wisconsin’s stadium event management plan as a model, shares Pat Cunningham, commander of emergency preparedness. And when VU was planning for a Rolling Stones concert, a police department staffer and the athletics manager traveled to UW to observe event management for their own Rolling Stones concert. Not sure which peers to turn to? The University of California, Davis, maintains a repository of information on, and examples of, campus emergency management planning.

7. Call on experts. Private security firms can not only provide extra event staff but also consult and coordinate between campus and outside agencies. “The earlier a security professional is involved, the better things go, and also the cheaper it is in the long run,” says O’Neill.

8. Get trained. Policies and procedures are crucial, but “the human factor” is also, of course, key in keeping people safe during major events, says Marciani. For those who want to have a few people primarily responsible for dignitary protection, Skipworth recommends providing both formal training and the chance to connect “with others in the field who do this on a day-to-day basis.” One higher ed-specific opportunity on its way back: simulation training for command post personnel offered by International Association of Campus Law Enforcement Administrators. (Cunningham was one of about 50 instructors for the course, which he says is currently being reconfigured.)

9. Have a playbook, but tweak it each time. Major Jay Gruber’s team at the University of Maryland Department of Public Safety has worked to keep people safe during visits from Bill and Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama (while he was on the campaign trail) as well as events such as the NCAA lacrosse finals. Booklets outlining who does what and where various staff and units are located include the same basic system and standards but get customized for each event. Lieutenant Cheryl Elliot of the Emory University (Ga.) Police notes that despite her campus’s hosting the regional Special Olympics each May since 1997, plans aren’t stagnant. “It’s not like you can take your policies and procedures and blindly move them from one year to the next.”

10. Address anticipated threats. World Lab Animal Day has included an organized protest at Emory since 1982?one that “requires the use of all our officers,” Elliot says. In the 1990s, after some protesters destroyed property, her team stepped up prevention efforts?and the destruction stopped, she adds. With certain basketball games at UM, meanwhile, “we plan to have civil disturbance and riots,” says Gruber?so officials there have undergone special training and wear protective equipment. Less visible threats need attention too. In 2002, Steven Spielberg earned the final credits for his degree from CSULB. An individual who had made past threats against the film director was unaccounted for on commencement day, so “we had to assume that individual may have come to Cal State Long Beach,” Skipworth says. “We had a little more of a presence in certain areas, and we had undercover people ready to go.”

11. Scrutinize guests?and staff, when necessary. Before Barack Obama’s campaign visit to Saint Peter’s College (N.J.), for example, the Secret Service did “a full vetting of anyone who could have intimate contact with or protection of him,” explains Savage, whose firm was involved in the event. But campus security shouldn’t rely on Secret Service intelligence alone. When Sen. Hillary Clinton visited Marist, Gildard screened the guest list and recognized a name from his former job as second in command for the local Poughkeepsie police department. Although the Secret Service wound up clearing the person (his past incident was nonviolent), they asked Gildard to pinpoint the person before the senator arrived so they could keep a watchful eye.

'The bottom line is, you shouldn't have ambulances responding; they should be on site.' -Patrick Fiel, ADT Security Services

12. Watch over areas near an event. Incidents such as fires starting, cars being turned over, and looting have happened near UM on big game days, Gruber says. So university police, along with partners from local police and fire agencies, now staff that area. “You’ve got to look at the threat level not just on your campus but within a 50-mile radius,” Fiel advises.

13. Devise evacuation plans. Emory’s Special Olympics evacuation plans, which cover everything from dealing with a thunderstorm to a suspicious unattended bag, are particularly explicit because of the population being served, Elliot says. “You need to make sure you can evacuate wheelchairs, that you can communicate to people who may have hearing or mobility issues.” Communicating the plan to coaches is also key. In 2002, the same year a crisis communication plan had been developed, “we had a small grease fire in the cafeteria and we had to evacuate that facility,” she recalls. “It worked perfectly.”

14. Set up a command post. Officials from security and areas such as fire and traffic control will be there, ready to respond to incidents. For sporting events, “usually the command post is in the stadium,” says Marciani, adding that mobile posts are also beneficial. “Not everything goes on where the actual event goes on,” Savage points out. With the electronic security, access control, and camera systems in a sophisticated command center, says O’Neill, “you can see a lot of what’s going on without people knowing you’re looking at them.”

15. Use available surveillance technology. As campuses become more open and accessible, Savage is seeing colleges investing more in surveillance. Camera-worthy locations may include the inside of a stadium and traffic entrance points. Steve Nibbelink, industry manager of campus markets for Pelco, creators of video and security systems, notes that tailgating areas are particularly worth watching. “You might also get cameras for the ticket entrance area. All that male bonding gets a little intense,” he says. If there are no extra cameras on hand, a systems integrator may offer rentals.

16. Keep an eye on video analytics. Cameras with this feature can help “identify threats before they become reality,” explains Fiel. Say you need to guard a door. If it’s open more than 10 seconds, the camera could alert the command center of a possible security breach. Other applications might be to notice someone moving in the wrong direction or a large vehicle stopped in an area for too long, O’Neill says.

17. Use metal detectors. Walk-through and handheld electronic screening devices are everyday tools for security firms and the Secret Service, but some institutions, including UM, own this type of equipment. Fiel suggests that all colleges, even smaller ones, keep metal detectors on hand. “You’re protecting the people, the assets that are coming to your stadium,” he reminds.

18. Establish staff communication methods. An 80MHz radio station in place at UM since 2001 allows for more talk groups, Gruber says. The various groups can also be brought together to one radio group, using a device that integrates stations. As for communication during concerts, don’t forget the audio limitations, Cunningham says. “You need visual cues so ushers can signal lights, or glow sticks for law enforcement or medical situations.”

19. Take a (quick) breather just before the event. “The day of the event is the easy part?you’ve already put your plan together,” says Fiel. Still, in his four years working at the military academy, he admits, “I never did see a West Point game.” (Of course, security detail and the spectator experience have little overlap.)

20. Have emergency personnel ready. Several years ago in August, during a New Kids on the Block concert at Furman, Miller recalls, “we treated a little over 100 kids for heat-related medical problems.” It’s a prime example of the need for on-hand medical and fire personnel. “The bottom line is, you shouldn’t have ambulances responding; they should be on site ... and spread out,” says Fiel. To cut down on heat-related incidents at its annual Scottish Games festival, Furman set up cool water “spray stations,” handed out Ziploc bags of ice, and directed fans to cooler indoor tents.

21. Be prepared for 11th-hour security requests. It’s not uncommon for a CSULB commencement audience to include celebrities. Some may contact security at the last minute to, say, get a closer parking space and avoid making a scene, Skipworth says. If a celebrity is spotted in the crowd, an officer may suggest enjoying the event from a particular vantage point so that the area around it can be watched and the person can avoid stealing the spotlight from the graduates.

22. Be ready to use contingency plans. At Vanderbilt, for a fireworks display at the end of a football game, Cunningham’s team consulted the fire marshal for advice on unsafe areas. “But the wind changed, so we had to move all our perimeters,” he says. The main exit route for the crowd of 40,000 had to be changed at the last minute. The plan B involved relocating some ushers and event personnel and redirecting fans to an alternate exit route. “Egress from the stadium was only mildly affected and the post-game traffic plan went well,” Cunningham reports.

23. Use crisis communication wisely. Within Vanderbilt’s various contingency plans are special plans for mass communication?covering what announcements will go out over the PA system, how mass notification will work, and whether sirens will be used, Cunningham says. “Coordinating on the timing of those things is critical.” With 50,000 people in a football stadium, turning on the tornado warnings or sending a mass e-mail to subscribers before giving notice on the PA could cause mass confusion, for example.

24. Schedule an after-action review. While this part of the planning process is often skipped, O’Neill says it’s most important, covering “here’s what we planned, here’s what actually happened, here’s what went well, here’s what didn’t go well.” The review helps determine what might be adjusted for similar events in the future. Whether an event happened like an “ordinary day or all hell broke loose, the only way we’re going to improve is pulling that information,” Marciani says. The CSULB team has raised the bar in examining the “candid, uncomfortable questions” during debriefings, Skipworth shares. “We wanted to be better about being honest and challenging one another.” For example, what was it about the event that was never considered or that the team never saw coming, and how did the team react? “We work hard at it,” he says. “It’s not just an issue of humility. It’s an issue of being honest with ourselves. We have a responsibility to protect someone or some group of people throughout their visit to our campus.”

National VIPs, from the president and past presidents or their families to the vice president, are quite the campus draw. Along with these special guests come members of the United States Secret Service for their protection. But there’s no need for rattled nerves when dealing with these protection experts. Here’s what campus officials need to know about the experience.

- Protectors are people too.

“They are the nicest, most polite law enforcement agencies I’ve ever dealt with,” says Pat Cunningham, commander of emergency preparedness at Vanderbilt University (Tenn.), whose decades of experience also include the Army military police and Georgetown University Police. “They’ll tell you they can’t do this event without the support of local law enforcement.”

- Plans will begin early and change.

Cunningham says that early planning and an understanding that “it’s going to be manpower intensive and the plans will change every day up until the event” are key. The initial plan will get changed and fine-tuned, especially as the lead agent scrutinizes it, and additional locations to the site visit may be added.

- The Secret Service agents will take the lead.

“It may be your campus, but they know what they’re doing in terms of executive protection. If they need something, you get it for them,” says John T. Gildard, director of safety and security at Marist College (N.Y.). That includes an event guest list, which they will want to screen.

? Planning will involve communicating security-based decisions internally.

Hosting organizations on campus “sometimes have unrealistic expectations about what’s going to happen,” says Major Jay Gruber of the University of Maryland Department of Public Safety. For example, the distance people can be from the dignitary may need to be wider than expected, or an open, unticketed event may need some restrictions, or a preferred venue may be too small or too large or not able to be secured adequately.

- The agents may kill a good view.

Sen. Hillary Clinton visited Marist a few years back to speak about neighborhood revitalization at an invitation-only event held in the library. During a pre-event walk-through, the agents decided that the dramatic backdrop?a large window overlooking a picturesque Hudson River?would not do because of some houses located across the river, about a half-mile away. So the team put some easels and paintings in front of the window. “Although it was across the river, they didn’t [assume] that nothing could happen,” Gildard explains. “They still wanted a screen to block potential visibility.”

- The Secret Service doesn’t pack light.

“They bring a complete package with them,” from handheld and walkthrough magnetometers to “a whole contingency of uniformed and plainclothes Secret Service personnel,” explains Gruber. “They’re the 800-pound gorilla on the block.”

- Their actions will teach.

In case there was any doubt, working with the Secret Service is a challenge, confirms Bob Miller, director of public safety at Furman University (S.C.). “You always learn a lot; you always get better. Being around the Secret Service rubbed off on us and will make us better for future VIPs.”

Even at a large institution like Vanderbilt University (Tenn.), which has 100 sworn officers in its police department, there are times when the team turns to contract security services. These extra staff have been brought in for everything from ushering services and bag checks to event management and assistance with monitoring campus access points, says Pat Cunningham, commander of emergency preparedness at the university.

“We tend to turn to the same list of vendors,” he adds, which include both local companies and national firms such as Allied Barton (

Mark Savage, general manager of Summit Security Services (, knows firsthand that a lot of institutions prefer to work with the same firm again and again. “On a day-to-day basis we’re contracted with several universities in the metro New York area,” he says, from the guard level on up to supervisory positions. For special events, these clients call on Summit as well. “We have a fluid communication with them,” explains Savage.

Dan O’Neill, president of Boston-based Applied Risk Management (, a global risk management and security engineering firm with about one-quarter of its business in higher education, says that his team will typically get a call about a special event months in advance. Then an expert from ARM will work closely with a security expert on campus for the planning.

What’s the best way to select a firm? Expertise in higher education and credibility in the marketplace are good signs, as are firms with longevity, says Patrick Fiel, an education safety advisor at ADT ( O’Neill adds that it’s important to interview personnel ahead of time and check references prior to selecting an outside security contractor.

When outside assistance is hired for an event, consider including that team in the post-event review. According to Savage, institutions may debrief the contracted security team about the aspects of the event in which they were involved, and his team does its own after-action review, but broader after-action reviews tend to be held internally. After all, the more information shared, the better prepared both internal and external security teams can be in the future.

In addition, as new building projects come up on campus?particularly stadiums and other facilities where future events will be held?consulting security experts can be a good idea. “When we’re designing a facility that’s going to house high-level speakers, we can do certain things,” shares O’Neill. For instance, the parking areas can be located far enough from the building to minimize damage if an explosive went off.

Fiel says that his team tries to make sure the president and other officials are aware of the costs of surveillance technology and other security features from the start. “I’ve been on numerous architectural boards, and before you know it the cameras are not present,” he says.

That kind of thinking hardly puts safety first. And when it comes to crowds, safety and security can hardly be an afterthought.