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Party Planning Under the Gun

Though General George Armstrong Custer and Indian Chief Geronimo never crossed paths, it’s likely sparks would have flown if they had. Today, however, their weapons—if not their spirits—coexist peacefully. They are among more than one thousand war-related artifacts on display at The Frazier Historical Arms Museum in Louisville, Kentucky, which opened its doors last year after a grand gala attended by some of the area’s most prominent and wealthy residents. It was up to museum security to ensure that the gala’s guests had a disarmingly good time and that, even though there were cannons to the left of them, muskets to the right, and sabers bared, the only volleys were verbal and the only thunderous sounds were applause.

Planning for the opening event took into account the type of guests, the event’s sponsor, the presence of VIPs, any exhibit or item that might be at particular risk, and the event’s logistics. Those same components now form the foundation of preparations for all of the events the museum hosts for other organizations.

Guests. Special events at cultural institutions run the gamut from school outings to weddings. Many don’t involve the typical museumgoer. And the staff must be prepared for a range of risks. For example, most events that take place at cultural properties involve alcohol. Imbibing can lead to altercations, attempts to leave with drinks (which violates the premises ordinances in most cities), and drunk driving. The hosting institution cannot turn a blind eye to the possibility of these types of incidents, not least because of liability concerns.

The Frazier’s opening gala, for which tickets cost several hundred dollars, included a mix of attendees. Among the guests were the arts crowd, prominent local business people, politicians, and socialites. Some of the richest people in the Midwest were on hand.

The Frazier’s primary concern was seeing to the physical safety of guests and the security of their belongings, such as jewelry. As described in more detail later, a mix of uniformed and plainclothes guards and police mingled with attendees as a deterrent to trouble and to ensure a ready response in the event of any incident.

Sponsor. Another key planning consideration is the group sponsoring the event. That was not a concern for the gala, as the museum itself and the city were the sponsors. But it is an issue that museums hosting third-party events must be prepared to address.

If the sponsoring group is controversial, it might be targeted by opponents, who may try to disrupt the event. Opposition actions could be nonviolent, as with picketers, or violent, as with terrorists. For example, some cultural institutions that have hosted pro-Israel functions have had to contend with Palestinian protests outside.

In such cases, the key is to coordinate closely with local police and the local field offices of any relevant federal law enforcement agencies. Depending on the group, the host institution can even call the protest organizers in advance and coordinate the protest, setting guidelines on where they can go and what they can do. Most groups are just seeking to spread their message, not interfere with patrons or passersby.

VIP presence. Dignitaries, celebrities, and politicians pose special challenges. They may, for example, want to bring their own security personnel. The host institution has to have a way to seamlessly communicate with these other security forces. If an incident occurs, the security staff must quickly be able to differentiate the good guys from the bad guys.

“This is one of the greatest risks” to special events, says Stevan Layne, CPP, a Denver-based museum security consultant. “Some clients will insist on providing their own security. If an institution’s policy allows such a practice, then the cultural property has the right to determine how that security will be performed on their property.”

These VIP security personnel often are accustomed to carrying a concealed weapon. But with the exception of federal, state, or local law enforcement (acting within its own jurisdiction), institutions have the right to deny permission for any outside security to be armed, Layne explains. Policies should also state under which circumstances force may or may not be used, and who is to be called when an emergency or other incident occurs, says Layne.

Secretary of Labor Elaine L. Chao was expected to be at The Frazier’s opening gala, as was her husband, Mitch McConnell, a senator from Kentucky. Also on hand would be Governor Ernie Fletcher and Louisville Mayor Jerry Abramson, as well as representatives of the British Crown—the constable of the Tower of London and the Tower’s chief yeoman—there to highlight the presence of the items loaned by the British Royal Armouries.

None of these dignitaries indicated that they would come with their own protection unit. The presence of so many VIPs, however, guaranteed that the state and city police departments would supply ample forces for the event.

The museum’s security and the state and local police met on several occasions beforehand so that they could become acquainted with each other’s personnel and map out a specific strategy as to how forces would be deployed and how they would communicate during the event.

Items at special risk. A museum hosting a special event must consider whether a particular exhibit or artifact is at risk during the event. Are alarm systems for cases and high-risk galleries able to be activated while the special event is taking place?

In the case of The Frazier opening, the most high-profile items came from the Royal Armouries. As a steward of priceless articles of the British patrimony, The Frazier management was acutely conscious of the need to safeguard these items.

Well before the gala took place, the Royal Armouries items, as well as the museum’s other display items, were secured behind alarmed cases and monitored by CCTV cameras. During the event, some security officers would be stationed at the Royal Armouries exhibit, while other officers patrolled the facility. Louisville police officers would also keep watch.

Logistics. The Frazier Museum is not particularly large, with a total square footage of approximately 112,000 and an occupancy capacity of about 1,300 people. When planning for the gala began, it was assumed that a manageable 500 guests would attend, with the whole function taking place in the museum proper. A reception would be followed by a sit-down dinner, which in turn would be followed by a preview of the museum’s exhibits.

As the date neared and interest for tickets grew, however, it became clear that the number of guests would exceed 900, with a support staff of many more, approaching the fire-code limits of the building. Moreover, the main conference room held only 550 diners.

When it became clear that the museum wouldn’t be able to handle all the guests for the meal, management decided to stage the dinner in a block-long tent in front of the museum. The new venue presented a number of challenges. Streets would have to be blocked off, abandoned cars removed, and security personnel placed on the street to protect expensive audio/visual equipment that contractors were setting up (a podium and large-screen monitors were set up in the tent for a presentation before the meal).

With respect to street closures, the main downtown thoroughfare, which passed directly in front of the museum, had to be shut down for four days for set up, and a major expressway ramp had to be blocked on the day of the event. Police would set up a four-square-block (two blocks by two blocks) outer perimeter the night of the event and a tighter perimeter around the tent.

On the outer perimeter, Louisville police officers and museum security officers would shut off all access by pedestrians and vehicles, allowing in only contractors and guests. They would also watch for intruders. A tighter perimeter around the tent would serve a similar purpose.

A few weeks before the event, museum management met with city officials to plan for the street closings. Various departments of the Louisville Metro Government, led by Mayor Jerry Abramson’s office, contributed to the plan. At one meeting alone there were a dozen city government offices represented, including police and fire personnel and officials who had responsibility for streets, licensing, and permits.

Approval was granted for street closures, and the city worked with the state transportation department for approval to close the expressway entrance ramp for the night of the gala. These steps were critical to securing the perimeter.

The museum also had to work with local businesses and business associations, which feared disruption due to the museum’s blocking off of a main street. A month in advance of the event, the museum’s employees briefed area businesses, associations, and mayoral liaisons to the business community on exactly what the museum was doing as well as exactly what parts of which streets would be closed down and reopened, and when. The Frazier made sure to let the businesses operate as usual for as long as was feasible.

Fortunately, most businesses were supportive and cooperative. They only had to look at the long-term picture: The museum had converted disused tobacco warehouses in a dilapidated part of the city into an exciting downtown destination. Business owners could see that by attracting people downtown, the museum would help everyone in the neighborhood.

At the perimeter during the setup, a small 24-hour detail was split between the museum security staff and off-duty Louisville Metro Police Department officers. But as the tent went up and people became curious about what was inside this large tent, extra police officers had to be added to watch the whole area.

As the night of the event approached, museum security management and the Louisville Police Department’s Dignitary Protection Unit reviewed plans for transporting VIPs, their arrival and departure, perimeter security, and emergency response. The traffic unit played a large role as the streets and expressway ramps became closed and traffic had to be rerouted.

VIP protection. The night of the event, museum security staff worked with the dignitary protection units of both the state police and Louisville police, who helped squire luminaries around the facility. All security and law enforcement personnel were equipped with radios tuned to the same frequency.

Some officers appeared clearly visible in uniform, wearing earpieces. Others, off-duty officers from the Louisville Metro Bomb Squad, were dressed in tuxedos and without earpieces to blend in and create a low-key presence. These officers were not meant to be strictly covert; if necessary, they were permitted to turn on their radios and communicate with the command center.

Because they were mingling with the crowd, the plainclothes officers were able to keep museum security posted on when dignitaries were leaving at the end of the night. When a VIP was planning to leave, the officers would radio the command center, located at the museum’s state-of-the-art security console. A valet would be alerted to have the person’s car ready by the time he or she got to the drop-off area. This system worked without a hitch.

Perimeter security. Because the event was well-publicized, by the night of the gala most nearby residents and workers knew what was going on, so they avoided the four-square-block perimeter. Louisville police and museum security personnel were stationed around the perimeter to keep gatecrashers and potential criminals far away from the function.

A tighter cordon of officers surrounded the tent. Other officers stood guard at entrances to the museum and tent. In addition, immediately before guests arrived, teams of bomb-sniffing dogs searched in and around the tent and nearby areas.

Protecting artifacts. By the time the day of the gala arrived, all of the items were stored in alarmed display cases. Whereas other types of museums expose patrons directly to paintings, sculptures, and other art works, the inherently dangerous nature of weapons required all display items to be enclosed in cases. In addition to stationary and roving officers, CCTV was in place to keep an eye on the artifacts.

Best laid plans. As happens at any large event, a few unexpected issues arose. For example, as the gala began, it was discovered that the tent blocked the route valets would have taken to move cars to parking areas. Valet parking had to be rerouted through a section of road that had been designated a VIP parking area.

On the fly, the museum had to find another parking area from which VIPs could make a quick getaway if necessary. The only place that fit the bill was the sidewalk across the street from the museum. But other cars were already parked there, so police had to relocate those vehicles by towing them just outside the perimeter to make room for the VIPs. Even a vendor’s forklift, which couldn’t be immediately identified, was towed.

Museum officials planned to notify any guests or contractors whose vehicles were towed. They looked up license plates of cars that were relocated, but none of the cars belonged to a guest or contractor. The museum never heard any complaints about the towing, so presumably the owners learned that their cars were towed just a couple of blocks away.

A vast tent is a lot easier to slip into than an access-controlled museum, and that fact led to other challenges. Officers in the tent noticed weaknesses in perimeter security that weren’t anticipated during the planning stages.

For example, a catering tent was located near the main dining tent. In the plans, the space between the tents was sealed off. But during the event, the caterers used that space as a serving route, partly because it gave them some respite from the heat of the cooking area and the unseasonably warm Louisville night. Officers were redirected to cover those areas.

The Frazier will only have one gala opening, but management expects to host thousands of special events in coming years. As these events become more important for generating revenue for the museum, security will be increasingly tasked with ensuring that events remain safe and that the arms on display remain well beyond arm’s reach.

Jeffrey A. Hawkins, CIPM (Certified Institutional Protection Manager), CIP (Certified Investigative Professional) is the director of operations and chief security officer for The Frazier Historical Arms Museum. He is a member of the ASIS Museum, Library, and Cultural Properties Council.