Security of Olympic Proportions: Conventional Wisdom on Safety at Public Venues

Aug. 6, 2008

Large public venues have more demanding security programs than most buildings because these iconic structures are often considered terrorist targets. With sound planning and preparation, they can also be safe havens during a disaster.

By Barbara A. Nadel, FAIA

August may be the slow, sultry, dog days of summer, but history - and the schedule of events planned for the rest of 2008 - indicates that the United States and other parts of the world are preparing for a state of heightened alert due to the prospect of potential terrorist attacks or acts of violence in the months ahead. Prime targets for such attacks are large public gatherings of people, dignitaries, and the media, such as at the Beijing Olympics, the U.S. Democratic and Republican conventions, U.S. presidential campaign events, and the transition of power in the United States on Jan. 20, 2009, when the new president takes office.

2008 Beijing Olympics
The 2008 Beijing Olympic Games, on Aug. 8 through 24, will provide the world a firsthand look into a country with an uneven record on human rights. China, with 1.3 billion people, the most populous nation on earth, sought the Olympics to showcase its advancements in the global arena.

Beijing's spectacular portfolio of dramatic new iconic buildings by leading global architects, timed for the Olympics, has provided shimmering images of architectural expression though the innovative use of form, materials, and structure. From the National Stadium (known as the Bird's Nest), designed by Herzog & de Meuron, and the cubic National Swimming Center, by PTW and Arup, to the National Center for Performing Arts (known as The Egg) by Paul Andreu, and the Central China Television (CCTV) Building by Rem Koolhaas's Office for Metropolitan Architecture and Arup, the many new urban and Olympic venues have captured the exuberance of the Games and the attention of a global audience.

At the same time, many hoped the selection of Beijing for the 2008 Olympics would be a harbinger of freedom of speech and freedom to gather in public places, but this does not appear to be the case. Media reports about intrusive security measures - at the airport and in the city - along with government Internet censorship and electronic spying devices in Beijing hotel rooms, have cast a pall over what could've been a new era of openness and individual rights.

The iconic National Stadium is in the middle of a large park, providing opportunities for creating adequate setback from the streets and mitigating threats of vehicle-borne explosives. After the Games, the architects hope to see the building become a public forum and visual anchor for the nearby community of housing towers; however, the Chinese government wants to build a fence around the stadium to eliminate the openness. A local developer has proposed an underground shopping mall at one end of the stadium, which offers more public access and potential threats during major events.

The CCTV building, owned by the state television authority, is also subject to limited public access. CCTV's directors want to close off two public streets through the site and restrict the plaza to employees. Without knowing the details or reasons behind this plan, it's possible that these concerns are based on the need for standoff, or setbacks from the road, to mitigate the impact of vehicular threats, improvised explosive devices (IEDs), and protesting crowds.

Award-winning architects who expect unlimited creative freedom to design global monuments without any outside intervention surely view such directives as unwelcome intrusions. Large public venues have more demanding security programs than most buildings because these iconic structures are often considered terrorist targets. With sound planning and preparation, they can also be safe havens during a disaster.

1972 Munich Games
The 1972 Summer Olympic Games in Munich proved to be deadly after 11 Israeli athletes were killed by Palestinians. Since then, security has been a major concern at the Olympics. When thousands of athletes, media, dignitaries, and huge crowds in iconic buildings are together in one place for 2 weeks, that adds up to a high-value target for any number of terrorist groups seeking to make a statement.

Several events in China have raised concerns about public safety during the Games. Chinese officials, anxious to ensure the Olympics would be safe in the city of 17 million, have thrown down a smothering blanket of security.

On Aug. 4, 2008, a vehicle rammed into a Chinese police station in western China, and attackers threw grenades, killing 32 people - the deadliest attack on security forces in recent times. Chinese counterterrorism experts claim that the country tracks a number of terrorist groups, from Muslim separatists, Al Qaeda, and Falun Gong to ethnic Chinese.

"From a safety and security perspective, the Beijing Olympics are the third major Olympic event to occur outside the United States since 9/11. At the previous two events in Athens and Turin, a security and crisis response operations center was centrally located at the Games, clear event planning and crisis response roles and responsibilities for participating agencies were spelled out beforehand, and planning for Olympic-related security expenditures was accomplished early," says security consultant Richard P. Grassie, CPP, President, Techmark Security Integration Inc., Rockland, MA.

"Given the political situation in China and the discontent emanating from Tibet and other regions, one would hope that the Chinese took these lessons learned from previous Olympics seriously; however, the attack in the desert oasis town of Kashgar, the city near the Afghan-Pakistan border where the Aug. 4 ramming and explosives attack resulted in 16 officers being killed and another 16 injured, is a chilling harbinger of events likely to occur before and after the start of the Games. China has mobilized thousands of police, military, and local residents as part of a huge security plan for the capital, but there is a vast portion of the country where such precautions have not been implemented. If China has taken mostly paramilitary oriented steps necessary to prevent and respond to terrorist acts in Beijing and throughout the country during the Games, the risks to the country are huge and the vulnerabilities apparent," Grassie observes.

It's a fine line between balancing public safety and security to protect citizens from terrorism, and respecting civil liberties in a free society.

London's Ring of Steel, consisting of strategically placed surveillance cameras located throughout the city, has been used to identify criminal suspects and terrorist activities. New York City's ill-fated proposal on congestion pricing for vehicles entering Manhattan reportedly had a similar component of surveillance cameras to track license plates as a security feature.

China's installation of thousands of surveillance cameras on lampposts and in Beijing Internet cafés and bars may have another intent: to track dissidents who oppose the current one-party rule. The most extensive and sophisticated Western video monitoring will remain in place after the Olympics are over. Other video-monitoring systems are being installed in China's 600 largest cities.

Conventional Wisdom
As the United States heads to the November 2008 general elections, large political gatherings will pose security challenges to law enforcement, security teams, and facility managers across the country.

Terrorists tried to change the course of elections in Madrid, with the train bombings carried out 3 days before Spain's 2004 general election. 9/11 was the day of the New York City Democratic primary to choose a new mayoral candidate. The primary was postponed; then-Mayor Giuliani later sought to extend his term-limited office by several months, a move that was rejected by the state legislature.

The 2008 Democratic convention in Denver on Aug. 25 through 28 will attract more than 50,000 attendees, including 14,000 media, 6,000 delegates, dignitaries, elected officials, party members, and sponsors in a downtown convention center. Similar crowds are expected for the 2008 Republican convention in St. Paul, MN, on Sept. 1 through 4. Both events have been designated National Special Security Events (NSSEs), which means that the U.S. Secret Service leads the operational and security planning.

The transfer of power in the United States on Jan. 20, 2009, from one president to another, and the first few months of transitioning to a new administration, provide yet another tempting tableau for distracting, violent terrorist acts against democratic ideals.

With these benchmarks in mind, the U.S. Department of Homeland Security has declared August 2008 through July 2009 as a "Period of Heightened Alert" (POHA), and a window as to when terrorists may have greater incentive to stage attacks.

During this time, agencies will review emergency response plans to various threats, from IEDs to biological weapons. For high-profile, private-sector facilities and institutions, or those located near an iconic building or potential target, a similar review of disaster planning and emergency-response protocols is in order.

According to Russ Simons, senior principal, HOK Sport, facility operations, evaluation and analysis group, since 9/11, increased cooperation between public assembly facility operators and public response agencies reflects better disaster planning. This includes police, fire, and emergency management services, as well as Traffic and Transportation, Department of Health and Environmental Protection, local and state agencies, and National Guard for decontaminant training.

A new program by the Red Cross, in cooperation with the Intl. Association of Assembly Managers (IAAM) on Mega Shelters, prepares public assembly facilities to function as mass relief shelters and support local community needs.

"The amount of training taking place is unprecedented," Simons observes. "The opportunities for public assembly managers to prepare facility personnel for emergency response have never been greater. Significant cooperation has taken place between the IAAM and the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) to develop evaluation, training, and response protocols industry wide. IAAM and DHS have developed a self-evaluation tool that allows public-assembly facilities of all sizes and uses to evaluate their preparations and ability to respond. IAAM has developed the Academy for Venue Safety and Security (AVSS), a multi-year program designed to educate and prepare public assembly facility managers, operators, and personnel to address many safety and security challenges. The AVSS program is nimble enough to adapt to the changing issues, vulnerabilities, and threats facing facility managers and operators each day."

"Facility safety and security operations have been complimented by the architectural community's response to new safety and security design criteria. Setbacks are incorporated into the overall design with integrated landscape design features to provide necessary protection without the fortress appearance. Architectural integration of new technologies in surveillance, access control, and biometrics provide the desired look and feel without sacrificing design intent and delivery," Simons says.

Finding the Balance
Seven years after the events of 9/11, the challenges of finding the balance between security and openness, public safety and civil liberties, freedom of expression and surveillance designed to prevent violence and terrorism, have never been greater. Political and security-related events play important roles in designing safe buildings for a global society. The building industry, along with owners, facility managers, and key government agencies, remains on the front line of protecting the public from threats and disasters.

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