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SuperSize Security

When Super Bowl XXXII unfolds later this month at San Diego's Qualcomm Stadium, two top teams will have the chance to test their skill on the field. The match represents the culmination of an entire season of preparation for the players. The same can be said of the public and private security organizations that are working off the field to secure the big game and attendant celebrations.

Their work began long before anyone could have predicted which two teams would compete--and well before they could be certain whether unrelated incidents might create security concerns, as occurred in 1991. In that year, Super Bowl XXV coincided with Operation Desert Storm, and based on intelligence from government agents, security personnel used magnetometers to screen fans on entry to the event. Should a serious threat emerge as this year's game approaches, the authorities are again prepared to ratchet up security on short notice.

The key to making the task manageable is preparation. Therefore, even before the first ball of the season was snapped, the Super Bowl host committee, formed by the city to coordinate responsibilities for the event, had established the security planning committee, led by Assistant Chief Dave Bejarano of the San Diego Police Department (SDPD).

The SDPD had gained experience handling large events when it played a similar role in securing the August 1996 Republican National Convention (RNC). But SDPD Captain Larry Moratto, who heads the planning committee's operations subcommittee, points out that Super Bowl security forces will be responsible for many more venues than they were during the political convention.

The Republican convention, he notes, was largely centered on the protection of political VIPs at the San Diego Convention Center; the Super Bowl, however, will demand coverage not only of the stadium but also of the various party and event venues, team members' hotels, downtown areas, and city streets. At the same time, normal staffing levels have to be maintained to fulfill the everyday needs of the city.

"For the RNC, we knew what we were dealing with," says Moratto, who describes security's job at that event as maintaining a tightly controlled atmosphere. But for the Super Bowl, it's come one, come all--making it harder to predict and control incidents.

To tackle the enormous challenge ahead, local, state, federal, and private safety and security organizations were called on to staff the committee's fourteen subcommittees. Each subcommittee is charged with a specific aspect of security. A summary of their issues gives some sense of the magnitude of the task: critical response, community relations, intelligence, investigations, logistics, legal matters, media services and crime prevention, operations, personnel, prisoner process, special events, stadium operation, transportation/traffic, and volunteers.

Federal assistance was provided by the FBI (for federal crimes and hostage negotiations); the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms (to assist the FBI); the Coast Guard; and the Federal Aviation Administration (to restrict airspace over the stadium and other venues).

Each group then put their first string to work practicing the precision plays and defensive maneuvers that would have to be honed in time for January season finale.

Knowing the field

As the field on which these events will unfold, San Diego's geography, climate, and culture must be considered when security's game plan is developed. For example, hot weather will increase the likelihood of visitors suffering from heat exhaustion, heart ailments, and other health risks. The security planning committee will thus staff events with medical personnel and equipment such as portable defibrillators. The NFL is planning to air public service announcements advising guests on how to dress and take care of themselves while in town.

In the 1996 National Football Conference championship game between the Green Bay Packers and the Carolina Panthers, NFL security had the opposite concern--that visiting Panther fans wouldn't be prepared for the frigid temperatures in Wisconsin. By raising awareness through NFL public service announcements and by posting on-site medical teams, planners kept hypothermia problems to a minimum.

A potentially more severe weather problem in San Diego this year will be the effects of El Nino, which some predict may ravage the area in late January.

The security planning committee also took note of San Diego's large Hispanic population. To avoid potential problems with communication, especially in the event of a health or safety incident, translators will be assigned to each venue. "If medical people can't communicate, it's a problem," says Milton Ahlerich, the NFL's senior director of security.

Demonstrations present another concern. The intensive media presence at the game is a natural draw for protest groups, and the SDPD began preparing for that possibility early on. During the Republican National Convention--where sixty-four groups protested--the SDPD minimized disruption by giving permits to protest groups and providing them with a stage, a microphone, and a time slot. The process was orderly, Moratto says, with most groups behaving in a professional manner.

Based on this experience, Moratto is working beforehand with groups interested in protesting. If he finds groups wishing to protest, he says, the police will provide space near the stadium and materials to do so safely. As of press time, he had heard from "less than a handful" of such groups.

One group representing the disabled planned to protest limited access for the handicapped at the stadium. But by tackling the problem early on, the SDPD and NFL were able to remedy many of the group's concerns, making it less likely that the group would protest after all.

Special events

The jumble of agencies and organizations with widely varying functions must somehow put together the show behind the show that millions of people will witness. The Xs and Os of securing the two weeks of events leading to the big game make the Dallas Cowboys' playbook seem like a grade-school primer.

Though the SDPD has the lead role in the overall security effort, especially in patrolling and crowd control, the NFL also plays a primary role in establishing baseline security requirements for its events, providing contract security officers and other protection personnel to protect the teams and venues, and facilitating communication between the agencies providing safety and security services.

The competing football teams themselves may also plug in their own security when necessary. While protection at any given site will differ, many of the planning components of the events, especially the NFL productions, are consistent.

The NFL first surveys each venue, reviewing the site's internal security force in the process. Ahlerich stresses the importance of using a venue's own forces when appropriate. "People who know the venue are critical," he says, because they are intimately familiar with specifics such as emergency doors, evacuation response times, and the like. Still, the NFL usually asks the venue to make special adjustments for the event. One special demand for the Super Bowl is a rigorous protocol for bomb sweeps around Qualcomm Stadium.

Further, the NFL tries to control arrival of guests to avoid panic or stampedes. Before events, it also schedules dry runs with supervisory staff to detect potential problems. For example, the NFL might check escalators to see whether their direction can be reversed in case of an evacuation.

Unexpected experiences ensure that procedures do not stay static year to year. For example, during last year's Super Bowl, Ahlerich discovered that two security groups working the same event couldn't communicate with each other because their radios were incompatible. This year special attention will be paid to communication systems.

Background checks of personnel such as waiters and vendors are also frequently conducted but may vary, according to Ahlerich. For some events, extensive checks may be in order, "but it's not across the board," he says.

Each special event will have its own security nuances, requiring adjustments to the general security measures. Among the events scheduled are the owners' party, the NFL Experience, Super Fest XXXII, and the NFL Tailgating Party.

Owners' party. Scheduled for the Friday night before Super Bowl Sunday at the San Diego Convention Center, the NFL Owners' Party will host some 3,000 to 6,000 guests of NFL team owners--including players--plus thousands of representatives from the media.

The NFL, largely through its main contract guard service supplier, Contemporary Services Corporation, will join forces with the convention center's security team and the SDPD to make sure that access is limited to legitimate ticket holders and that players and other VIPs are not injured or harassed.

The event is typically not dangerous, but the sheer number of guests makes it imperative that medical and fire services be standing by. "If one athlete disappears or is hurt, it can hurt the team and affect the outcome of the game," notes Kelly S. Klatt, CPP, the convention center's chief of security.

Plans call for guests to pass through two perimeter checkpoints, but security will probably not erect a fence around the facility. Unlike the Republican National Convention, where fences ringed the facility and visitors had to pass through magnetometers, explains Klatt, "this is not a high security political event with a big terrorist threat."

As with other events, once at the door, guests must present a ticket with special anticounterfeit features for entry. But to minimize delay or embarrassment for guests who have forgotten their tickets, the NFL will staff the owners' gala with personnel equipped with checklists of party invitees.

One main concern is that the 1998 PlayStation NFL Players Party, hosted by the NFL Players Association and not sanctioned by the NFL, will also be occurring on Friday night--just a few hundred yards from the convention center. At least 10,000 people are expected at that party to mingle with the hundreds of players who will attend. Because of limited parking near the site, many of the fans will park downtown and walk across convention center property to get to the party locale, Embarcadero Park.

Some players association guests may have designs on the convention center event. Therefore, traffic flow of pedestrians to the appropriate areas, to be coordinated by police officers and convention center security, will be critical.

Inside the convention center, staff will work with the NFL to patrol the facility, ensure guests' well-being, provide executive protection, and otherwise supplement NFL security as needed.

As at many events, nonsecurity staff such as concierges, ushers, and doormen serve as extra sets of eyes and ears, as well as a first line of contact for guests. In addition, an extensive, monitored CCTV system will cover the movement of guests.

NFL Experience. The NFL Experience is a traveling roadshow of NFL memorabilia and games that is set up at various sites to give fans of all ages a chance to get off the sidelines and into the gridiron maelstrom. For the Super Bowl, the amusements will be located in an 850,000-square-foot park located west of Qualcomm Stadium. Under the NFL Experience's big tent, fans can tackle dummies, toss and catch footballs, negotiate obstacle courses, and otherwise emulate their NFL heroes.

Special security concerns arise when these armchair quarterbacks cut loose. Problems can include injuries such as sprains or slip-and-falls. (Because the event is family-oriented and not much alcohol is involved, physical confrontations between participants are rarely a worry.) Though the area will be covered by a tent to block direct sun and rain, problems caused by heat must also be incorporated into contingency plans.

Protection of the equipment that will make these events happen is another concern. The show's property started arriving in San Diego right after Christmas, requiring twenty-four hour on-site asset protection and close monitoring of deliveries. Priceless NFL memorabilia such as Super Bowl rings and trophies will be on display at the NFL Experience, requiring constant diligence by officers and high-tech help, such as electronic monitoring.

Super Fest XXXII. While only a select few can get into certain parties and other NFL-sponsored events, the three-day Super Fest "street scene" over Super Bowl weekend is an open, free event not sponsored by the NFL. It is expected to attract some 40,000 to 70,000 visitors.

The event will take place in San Diego's Gaslamp district, an area filled with restaurants, nightclubs, shops, and galleries. Streets will be blocked off to vehicles, allowing pedestrians to roam among the musical stages, athletic exhibitions, beer gardens, food vendors, and other events and activities.

Because of the party atmosphere, the SDPD's main concerns will be rowdiness, crowd control, and safety. While Super Fest was originally envisioned as an event without restrictions, as of press time the security committee was considering fencing and gated entry so that they could perform patdowns of revelers if necessary. To keep things orderly, the committee was also looking at closing the event to minors at night, an action that could prove logistically difficult.

Tailgating party. The NFL Tailgating Party is an open event to be held in a parking lot near the stadium on game day. Many in attendance come in hopes of getting into the game--and don't--which can keep security busy trying to keep tempers down. When the game was held in Arizona a few years ago, for example, people became angry and verbally combative when a giant television screen set up for the event went on the fritz. While physical violence did not become an issue, "we want them to go away with a smile on their face," says Ahlerich. As of press time, he was studying whether television screens should be erected for the San Diego event.

The big game

All other events are just warm-ups for the big game. A major priority at the stadium will be access control.

The NFL and its partners will rely on a series of credentials for media and other guests, including tickets with sophisticated anticounterfeit features. Security personnel will be stationed at entryways to screen out gate-crashers and to keep out projectiles, alcohol, and weapons. To that end, they will conduct bag and bottle checks, patdowns, and additional checks (for which officers are specifically trained) if circumstances so warrant.

Bomb-sniffing dogs will be used to perform pregame checks of the stadium and possibly screen fans at gates in certain situations. Plans called for any such explosives-screening at the door to be invisible to the public, though that could change if a specific threat was made.

The NFL's Ahlerich says that there is a "broad concern about weapons coming in," which is always a consideration at the Super Bowl, even absent a specific threat. "Should there be a specific threat, certainly we would impose stepped up screening," he says. But Ahlerich adds that the threat is less than at certain other games because the Super Bowl is a prized ticket that draws an upscale crowd.

Beyond printing sophisticated tickets, the NFL will use an access control technique that worked well at last year's game in New Orleans. It will place undercover police officers inside the stadium to keep a close eye on ticket takers' movements--guarding the guardians at the gate--because it is the gatekeepers themselves who often attempt to let friends in after the event begins.

Access to different areas within the stadium will also be closely monitored. For example, thousands of reporters will be roaming the site, with varying levels of authority to enter places such as the locker rooms. To ensure that they do not stray into restricted locations, extra security officers will be posted to those areas to carefully inspect credentials.

In addition, the game will require a tremendous number of service personnel in the stadium to handle sales of food, beverages, and souvenirs as well as to perform various other tasks. These personnel will receive specific credentials that they must display visibly at all times. To reduce the chance of counterfeits, credentials will be distributed on game day, and before service personnel can enter the stadium, security will check each ID carefully.

In prior Super Bowls, such credentials have sometimes been forged, even when the badges were handed out on the day of the event. This year, therefore, elements have been incorporated to limit the likelihood that counterfeit IDs will go unnoticed. Ahlerich says that these components will be readily apparent only to the trained eye.

Inside, the stadium will include a mix of the NFL's contract security officers and SDPD officers, many undercover, augmented by electronic aids such as an extensive CCTV system. The SDPD's Moratto says that his department's staffing level will be about 150 percent of what it is at a typical San Diego Chargers game.

Perhaps surprisingly, according to NFL Security Director Ahlerich, the Super Bowl has "one of the best behaved crowds for any football game during the season." While the passion level is high, incidents of fan misconduct are not, he explains. That attitude helps security's special teams execute their plays. But, of course, the fans aren't thinking of security's game plan. It's just that "if it's a winning season for your team," notes Ahlerich, "you don't want to get kicked out."