Casinos Strengthen Their Security Hand
Of the 25 largest hotels in the United States, 15 are part of gaming establishments located on the Las Vegas Strip. Hundreds of thousands of guests and employees are congregated in this concentrated area on any given day or night. Owners and managers of these properties recognize that in a post-9-11 world, their facilities provide terrorists with an enticing target that could result in mass casualties.
With this understanding, casinos in Las Vegas and all around the United States enacted new security and surveillance practices in the immediate aftermath of 9-11. Some were reactive and ultimately unsustainable. However, others proved beneficial and have been retained or refined to improve effectiveness or reduce costs.
To get a better idea of these trends, the ASIS International Council on Gaming and Wagering Protection recently surveyed 25 casino security professionals around the United States. The council found that physical security and surveillance were more prevalent than in the past. Among the measures they found were live monitoring of property areas never focused on before, the use of proprietary explosives-detection dogs, and the inauguration or enhancement of employee awareness training programs. In addition, security personnel at these facilities were seeking ways to ensure more reliable and effective communications.
Almost all of the properties contacted by the council had enhanced their physical security programs in the wake of 9-11, and most still have that enhanced protection in place. Most properties have, for example, upgraded existing access control systems or put in new systems. Several have installed metal detectors to screen guests and employees for weapons.
One such site is Las Vegas’s Stratosphere Hotel and Casino, where all guests and employees now pass through the metal detector before being cleared to travel up the property’s landmark 1,149-foot freestanding observation tower to the dining and entertainment venues at the top.
At Harrah’s Council Bluffs, in Council Bluffs, Iowa—a traditional hotel casino environment—exterior HVAC, boilers, and other equipment accessible from low rooftops are now secured, as are doors leading to electric equipment, pool chemical storage, and other sensitive facility areas, according to Jeff C. Graber, surveillance director. Perimeter doors are locked against entry, and both guests and employees entering the casino are funneled through designated security checkpoints.
Check-in and elevators. Many hotels now require that guests present a photo ID when they check in, and many establishments also run a check of the guest’s name against those on the government’s terrorist watch list. Many establishments also have a security officer posted around the clock at the elevators to check guestroom keys.
Rooms. Some hotels have instituted mandatory daily guestroom checks that occur when a guest has posted a “do not disturb” sign for a significant amount of time and does not respond to knocks or phone calls. These checks ensure that the guest has not suffered a medical problem, committed suicide, or been harmed. It is also a way to reduce the opportunity for the room to be used for illegal purposes.
Patrols and surveillance. Some properties have increased patrols and surveillance cameras. One property area that has drawn increased scrutiny is the back of the house. Prior to 9-11, daily back-of-the-house activities were recorded, but they were seldom monitored live.
The Stratosphere ties its level of patrols to the Department of Homeland Security’s (DHS’s) color-coded threat assessment barometer. “The higher the threat level, the more back-of-the-house and perimeter patrols are conducted,” explains Jessie Beaudoin, the Stratosphere’s surveillance property manager.
Public response. As resorts have ratcheted up security, there has been some concern that the public might not welcome the change. For the most part, the worry has been unfounded.
“We felt that we would receive rejection from guests for initiating strict security procedure and policy,” says Harrah’s Graber. But, he notes, “We discovered that the public was actually grateful for the means used.”
That was not always the case, however. After 9-11, one Arizona gaming establishment added additional security personnel at the doors to search guest and employee backpacks, large purses, and other packages. This was eventually discontinued because of the additional personnel strain it caused on the security department and because of the numerous complaints from guests. No contraband of any significance was ever found.
Going to the dogs. One popular addition to security regimens has been explosives-detection dogs. Stratosphere Vice President of Security Arthur Steele conceived of the use of canine units and ultimately convinced corporate management to purchase a dog named Officer Dex, who is handled by Canine Security Officer Steve Lieberman.
Dex is trained in building search, explosives detection, criminal apprehension, tracking, scouting, article search, and area search. In addition to being used for regular checks of critical areas of the property, the two-year-old German shepherd, because he is on the site, also allows a quicker response to phoned-in bomb threats or suspicious packages or vehicles, says Beaudoin. Dex was “easily accepted” by guests, attracting appreciative crowds while on his rounds, he notes.
Other gaming establishments with their own explosives-detection dogs now include the MGM Grand and Wynn Las Vegas, the latter of which has a proprietary team of six.
Parking. Parking lots are also getting more attention. The Stratosphere was one of several gaming establishments that reported adding new layers of parking lot security. Security checkpoints have been created at the entrances of the casino’s multistory parking deck. Security looks for “suspicious persons or vehicles and conducts random vehicle checks, including using mirrors to view underneath,” Beaudoin states.
Another gaming property increased walking patrols in parking lots after 9-11. Later, this was changed to bike patrols. These patrols have been retained because they have proven effective in lowering automobile thefts and break-ins.
Parking restrictions have also been put in place at Harrah’s, which ties them to DHS threat levels. An elevated threat level means limiting parking in areas close to the facility, allowing no trucks within 75 feet of the structure unless they are following a prearranged and documented delivery schedule, and prohibiting unattended cars at entry points, near front doors, or in the valet registration area.
When the color code is elevated to red, the plan calls for checking all vehicles entering the property, checking guests’ cars again at valet registration—as well as their baggage, inspecting incoming shipments, and strategically posting security officers and erecting barricades.
Food handling. Another area of resort gaming properties that has seen increased monitoring is food handling and preparation. After 9-11 and the subsequent yet-unsolved anthrax attacks, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention warned that further attacks might come via food contaminated by heavy metals, pesticides, dioxins, polychlorinated biphenyls, and other pathogens.
To address the threat, it is now more common in gaming resorts to find surveillance cameras focused on food lockers, chefs as they cook, and the serving lines and steam tables of the buffets for which casinos are so well known. While these cameras were originally deployed to mitigate the threat of terrorism, they are also proving useful in injury liability and theft cases.
As with first responders and government officials, gaming industry security chiefs have come to recognize the importance of having powerful and redundant crisis communication technology.
William A. Vicaldo, Jr., is executive director of security at Barona Valley Ranch Resort and Casino in Lakeside, California. He says that during the 9-11 attacks, he observed that traditional and cellular phones were disrupted by the collapse of the North Tower, atop which was a major cellular relay point, and radio communications largely failed due to a number of frequency issues.
In response, Vicaldo says, the property investigated cell-phone relay technology and eventually purchased phones “that could be used in our area even if a large percentage of the local relay towers was destroyed.” A satellite phone was also acquired to serve if all relays were indeed knocked out. Security, staff, and the local fire department were trained on the use of the new equipment.
News flash. Some properties, such as the Stratosphere, have breached the traditional sanctum sanctorum of the surveillance room by installing TV and radio.
Pre-9-11, surveillance room communication was mostly internal, concerning internal procedure auditing and other property issues, says Robert Prady, a former gaming industry surveillance chief. “We discouraged [outside input] to keep the agents focused on the casino. But we learned from 9-11 that having breaking news was critical to surveillance’s decision-making processes,” Prady explains.
This important change of worldview has assisted law enforcement. For example, one property’s surveillance officers watched a live local news report about police chasing a wanted individual. The officers turned their attention to the property’s exterior CCTV cameras and soon observed the suspect entering the casino and mingling with a crowd of customers. The surveillance department reported to police the subject’s exact location within the casino, and he was quickly apprehended without harm to guests or staff.
To further enhance the information flow to security and surveillance officers and other employees, the type of information regularly communicated to personnel at Barona Valley Resort was expanded. Vicaldo says that before 9-11, there had been meetings just before the beginning of each shift, but useful information was rarely shared at these meetings. “Now, this time is used to communicate current issues and ongoing training opportunities,” he states.
Many properties enhanced their employee orientation and ongoing training programs after 9-11 to include the new security policies and procedures. For example, the Barona Valley Resort created a post-9-11 training program and designated a fulltime trainer from the security department.
At Harrah’s, mailroom personnel are now educated on the U.S. Postal Service’s and federal government’s guidelines on handling suspicious mail and packages. Other hotels have conducted security awareness training in critical areas such as valet services, housekeeping, food and beverage, and property safety committees.
Some new terrorism awareness classes are added to existing curricula. Staff are also educated with regard to national-threat-level notification. As a result they now have a better sense of how to react when changes to the threat level occur.
Five years out from the agony of 9-11, almost all security chiefs contacted agreed that while security and surveillance efforts generally remain enhanced, employees, vendors, guests, management, and owners are once again becoming apathetic to security.
Similarly, security funding is again becoming a problem, as it often was before 9-11. Harrah’s Graber says that at the Council Bluffs property, the increased staffing and overtime needs caused by what became a “perpetual state of elevated alert,” resulted in considerable budgetary problems, which meant he had to discontinue ongoing officer training, except for conducting drills and tests of emergency procedures.
Faced with that reality, security managers must deter terrorists without breaking the budget. “It is a balancing act for the security manager,” says one security chief who asked not to be named. It requires “balancing the outside influences, the needs of the organization, and taking prudent precautions to make your facility less of a target.”
After 9-11, the gaming and wagering industry realized it could be a terrorist target. With this understanding, U.S. casinos enacted new security and surveillance practices. Some were reactive and ultimately unsustainable. Others proved beneficial and have been kept. Some have been refined to improve effectiveness or reduce costs.
To assess these evolving trends, the ASIS International Council on Gaming and Wagering Protection contacted a sample of casino security chiefs and other security experts. Among the findings was that several properties had installed metal detectors at strategic or critical locations to screen for weapons. Additionally, exterior HVAC, boilers, and other equipment accessible from low rooftops were secured, as were doors leading to electric equipment, pool chemical storage, and other sensitive facility areas.
Monitoring and patrols were significantly increased after 9-11 with the deployment of surveillance cameras and the addition or upgrading of access control systems. Two areas that have drawn increased scrutiny are the back of the house and food preparation and serving. New layers of security have been implemented in parking lots, and explosives-detection dogs have been purchased to check critical areas of the property on a consistent schedule.
Derk J. Boss, CPP, CFE, is vice president, surveillance, with American Casino and Entertainment Properties, Inc., of Las Vegas, Nevada. He is a member and former chair of the ASIS International Council on Gaming and Wagering Protection. Ann Longmore-Etheridge is an associate editor of Security Management. The authors wish to thank Douglas L. Florence, CPP, Joe McDonald, and John D. Horton of the ASIS Council on Gaming and Wagering Protection for their help with this article.