ATLANTA, HOST TO this month’s ASIS International 54th Annual Seminar and Exhibits, is a special-event city. It is special in other respects as well. From a crime fighting and emergency preparedness standpoint, Atlanta’s downtown is unlike that of most other cities. Coexisting within its limits are 10 law enforcement agencies and two university police departments, as well as transit police. The convention center, called the Georgia Congress Center, also has its own sworn police force.
With such a mix of authorities, coordination among public and private entities is crucial. Recognizing this fact, the city’s public and private sectors have been cooperating and sharing information for some time. The high level of cooperation stems back to the attitude the city fostered during the Olympics.
But the city’s faith in itself was shaken on 9-11, when downtown businesses realized how unprepared they were for a mass evacuation. More than 200,000 people tried to leave downtown Atlanta at the same time. Businesses did not share their evacuation plans. Cell phones didn’t work because of the high demand, and tempers flared as people tried to navigate clogged streets and overcrowded MARTA trains to get home to their families.
Much has changed since 2001. The cell phone systems have more towers and can handle more traffic. Businesses downtown practice evacuation scenarios in tandem to help prepare for any future emergencies.
Businesses also work with law enforcement and homeland security officials to conduct full-scale drills.
Two groups—the Central Atlanta Progress and the Atlanta Police Foundation—have led the way in establishing the needed level of cooperation and communication. By helping the city to mesh public and private resources, they have played a critical role with regard to addressing day-to-day crime in the downtown area and providing emergency response.
Central Atlanta Progress
Founded in 1941 by downtown businesses, which fund it, Central Atlanta Progress did not originally have a security or disaster-response mission. It is a private not-for-profit organization that had as its initial focus promoting the downtown area as a business-friendly place. Over time, however, its mission has broadened. The organization launched the Atlanta Downtown Improvement District (ADID) in 1995. ADID is funded through dedicated property taxes and is focused on keeping the downtown area safe.
The organization does not replace any city services. Instead it seeks to enhance them. “Our charter is to keep the downtown clean, safe, and hospitable,” says David Wardell, CPP, ADID vice president of operations and public safety. “That’s our mission.”
The organization has a nine-member board of directors representing law enforcement and private businesses located downtown. ADID fulfills its mission through public relations, communications, and cooperation.
Patrols. ADID has a 65-member team that carries out functions typically handled by security officers, but they use the moniker of ambassadors. Serving both a public-safety and public-relations function, they patrol the downtown area streets, provide escorts for workers after hours, and visit parking lots to deter theft.
The group also maintains and monitors 13 surveillance cameras that record images from public areas downtown. Another group of 18 employees, called the clean team, helps pick up litter and otherwise keep city streets clean.
Ambassadors, who are uniformed, ride Segways or bicycles to cover their downtown territory; 30 are on duty at a time. They regularly patrol from 6:00 a.m. until midnight and longer, if necessary, to deal with a crisis.
Each ambassador carries a two-way radio, offering access to a dedicated Atlanta Police Department radio frequency called COMNET. Monitored around the clock by city police, the frequency offers simultaneous emergency communication between ADID, businesses, and public safety personnel. Ambassadors also carry bullhorns and defibrillators.
If an ambassador sees someone committing a crime, he or she calls police on the radio. If someone is acting suspiciously, the ambassador issues a warning. A police officer is always on duty downtown, so if someone ignores an ambassador’s warning, the police can be on the scene in less than one minute.
The ambassadors also perform a critical public-relations service. They are meant to be seen in an effort to prevent crime, but they also serve as an adjunct to the police department. For example, three times a day the ambassadors perform “stationaries.” During three distinct periods—the morning rush, from 7:30 a.m. to 9:00 a.m.; during lunch, from 11:30 a.m. to 1:00 p.m.; and during the evening rush, from 4:30 p.m. to 6 p.m.—ambassadors are assigned to specific points around the city.
Residents, workers, and especially tourists can ask them questions, such as if they need directions. This function helps promote the image of Atlanta as a friendly city, but on a more practical level, it frees up police to deal with more pressing matters.
“It also serves another purpose,” says Wardell. “If something happens, we know where the ambassadors are. They can function as town criers in an emergency, serving as sources of information for the police and the public.”
Such an emergency unfolded in March when a tornado swept through downtown on a Sunday, killing one person and causing an estimated $150 million in damage. On the Monday morning after the tornado, the downtown area was subjected to rolling street closures as glass continued to fall from high-rise buildings. Police directed traffic and responded to storm-related issues, while ambassadors stepped in to give directions to confused drivers and pedestrians.
This same scenario plays out in other emergency situations. If a building needs to be evacuated for any reason, ADID dispatches a “one plus four,” meaning one supervisor and four ambassadors. The team is assigned to the building to help get people out, give directions to safe locations, and monitor traffic.
The clean team performs public works, including removing graffiti and picking up trash. They explore abandoned property and ask building owners to clean up untidy areas. The clean team also watches out for public facilities that need repair. They report malfunctioning traffic lights and street lights, for example.
In the 48 hours after the tornado, the clean team removed 45,000 pounds of trash and debris. The first night alone, the clean team hauled 700 50-pound bags of trash out of the downtown area.
Communications. In ADID’s role as a conduit to the business community, communication is key. The group sends out an e-mail newsletter and has regular meetings as well as postmortem reports to keep everyone updated.
The electronic newsletter, the Downtown Navigator, is available to anyone who wants to subscribe via the Central Atlanta Progress Web site. It covers all information that could affect downtown businesses, including traffic information and construction notices.
Subscribers get an update daily and more frequently during emergencies. For example, during the cleanup after the tornado, ADID e-mailed updates of the newsletter twice a day with detailed information on road closures. The information is also available on the Web site.
Subscribers, who are typically senior level managers and security professionals, can use what they learn from the e-newsletter to help their employees keep on top of the latest news. One afternoon about a week after the tornado, for example, a fire marshal was inspecting the downtown Metropolitan Atlanta Rapid Transit Authority (MARTA) station at about 5:00 p.m. Due to the threat of falling glass, the marshal decided to shut the station down.
MARTA contacted ADID about the problem and then sent station attendants down to the platform to tell commuters. Through the Downtown Navigator, ADID was able to get the word out about the station closure immediately. Business owners then kept their employees informed. While those already at the station when the fire marshal acted were not helped by the newsletter, others were forewarned and knew to find alternative ways to get around the city.
ADID holds a monthly meeting at Wardell’s office, at which time law enforcement and private industry representatives can discuss current, upcoming, and past events. Attendees exchange homeland security information and discuss a range of issues including crime rates and the latest security technology. These meetings are especially helpful after major incidents like the tornado.
One such meeting, held two weeks after the storm, included owners of some of the high-rise buildings that were affected most severely. Police and transportation officials discussed the storm response and how procedures could be improved to better deal with future incidents.
While the consensus was that the cleanup went smoothly, there were some lessons learned. For example, companies that did not have contracts with disaster recovery teams before the storm hit regretted the oversight. Help was difficult to procure quickly and businesses needed all sorts of services, including subcontracted electricians, structural engineers, and onsite crews to cut boards to cover damaged windows.
Another lesson, says Wardell, was that they could have better deployed public and private resources “to keep on top of changing information.”
For example, any fire marshal or a police zone commander could close a road, but only the official who ordered the closing could reopen it, leading to confusion. Similarly, three fire marshals worked to inspect buildings and declare them safe. However, one marshal would reopen a building only to have another come along and close it down.
Some of these frustrations probably could not have been avoided, says Wardell, but keeping everyone informed of these decisions might have helped smooth tensions during the recovery phase.
Cooperation. Last year, MARTA staged a mock terrorist exercise involving ADID, law enforcement, fire officials, neighboring businesses, and private security. The event was staged as an attack on a transportation station, which had a rail and bus component. The simulated response involved SWAT teams, bomb squads, and emergency medical technicians.
“We tested our lines of communication,” says drill participant Michael Hoffer, who oversees homeland security issues for Cousins Properties, which manages the largest office building in the city. “We learned personally what kind of response we could expect from local law enforcement.”
Hoffer says that the drill drove home for him the importance of cooperation. A key element is to make sure that you know who you’ll need to contact in whatever organization you want to liaise with, he notes. With that in mind, Hoffer maintains rosters and databases that include contacts at various local companies. “We have made great efforts to know who all the players are,” says Hoffer. “We maintain contact with police and fire officials as well as neighboring college police and transit authority police.”
This cooperation proved critical during the real-life disaster response to the tornado. In that case, ADID was able to pull together resources from its many private company contacts to help with the cleanup rather than having to rely on public crews. “We were able to contact the people who own the dump trucks, the bulldozers, and the generators,” says Wardell.
By Saturday morning, the roads were filled with tractor trailers loaded down with equipment and supplies.
Atlanta Police Foundation
A close partner of ADID is the Atlanta Police Foundation (APF). Founded in 2003, the nonprofit group represents not only law enforcement throughout Atlanta but also private business—corporate security directors for all major corporations in the city are members. APF is charged with improving safety and security throughout the city. To focus its security efforts, the APF formed the Atlanta Security Council (ASC).
The ASC is led by the head of APF, Dave Wilkinson. Just like APF, ASC brings public and private security together. Members include corporate security directors along with Atlanta Police Chief Richard Pennington and his command staff.
The theory behind the group is simple, according to Wilkinson. “If you have senior-level directors who are responsible for emergency preparedness for each of these companies working with the police department, you can accomplish a lot of things,” he says. Because “you have decision makers in the room, you can collaborate on common safety and security initiatives, and then come up with plans that will mitigate concerns.”
The ASC meets monthly to discuss any security issues the city is facing. At the most recent meeting before the tornado, for example, the group explored the rising rate of theft from cars. Primarily, the thefts were crimes of opportunity. “People were leaving laptops and other valuables in plain sight,” says Ray Shaddick, vice president of corporate security for Turner Broadcasting. “And people were breaking in to steal these items.”
To address the issue, the group decided on a public-awareness campaign to urge drivers to put their valuables away. In addition, law enforcement offered to step up patrols and explore signage in public areas.
Getting buy-in from businesses on crime prevention measures is not difficult, says Wilkinson. “They all want to help reduce crime and the perception of high crime.”
But measures still have to be cost-effective, because city businesses pay for the programs. “The business community had to be willing to accept the new initiatives in their budgets as a recurring expense,” says Wilkinson.
With broad objectives and cost in mind, the ASC set out to identify the most immediate concerns in the city and to develop plans to address them. They devised a multipronged approach called Operation Shield.
Operation Shield. The Operation Shield program was designed to create force multipliers. Businesses had been trying to increase the police presence in the city for years. In fact, one company donated $350,000 to build a police precinct downtown. Despite these efforts, the police department remained understaffed and underfunded.
Examining the problem, Wilkinson found that there were between 15 and 20 private security officers for every police officer. One answer to the police shortage was to allow private security to help.
“By including private security in crime prevention programs, they could become the eyes and ears of the police department,” says Wilkinson. “This would benefit security and police.”
This theory led to the three parts of Operation Shield: a Web-based information-sharing system, a dedicated radio frequency, and a city surveillance system.
CityWorkSite. An information-sharing network, the Atlanta CityWorkSite allows the police department to send information about crimes or critical events directly to private industry.
Prior to Operation Shield, when a major crime took place, the 911 dispatchers would send alerts to police commanders. “Our idea was why can’t we provide this information to the business community?” Wilkinson says.
Now, when a major crime takes place, information on the incident is sent out to every security director in the city who has opted to be on the system. The information is sent via text message, e-mail, pager, and fax. Once businesses receive the information, it is then their job to relay it to all the security guards in and around their building. “So now, you have guards being the eyes and ears for police,” says Wilkinson. “They have become that force multiplier we were looking for.”
COMNET. Further, Operation Shield members can also issue alerts to other businesses via COMNET. The police benefit because they are simultaneously alerted to any incidents.
Surveillance. In 2007, Wilkinson set out to identify the most critical tourist areas in the downtown area. Thirteen of these points were found. Wilkinson wanted to install digital video cameras in these hotspots and have police monitor the feeds.
Wilkinson approached Wardell, who agreed that ADID could purchase the cameras. Within a month, the cameras were installed, and within six months, they were up and running. Police officers and ADID ambassadors monitor the cameras from a local precinct.
Wilkinson and the ASC are now working to integrate more cameras into the system and upgrade it with the latest technology. The ASC plans to integrate into the existing Operation Shield the other cameras around town that have been put up by private businesses to monitor their own perimeters. These cameras, numbering about 2,200, could also provide supplemental monitoring of public areas downtown.
Businesses that own these cameras will be invited to join the program. If they opt in, their cameras will be hooked into the network and viewed by the ASC, ADID, and the police department.
The ultimate goal of the program would be for a 911 dispatcher, after receiving a call about a crime, to be able to pull up the camera nearest the scene and relay information to officers and private businesses in the area. Officers being dispatched to the scene could view images of the scene on the laptop located in the police car.
Another component the ASC hopes to include is “smart” video analytics, such as automatic detection of objects left unattended. The group would also like to incorporate gunshot detection technology. Microphones would detect when a weapon is fired, and then software would direct the nearest camera to begin recording the scene. The ASC is also exploring facial recognition software.
By spending time meeting and dealing with business leaders in the city, members of the ASC have garnered support for the idea, making it more likely that businesses will be willing to pay for the initiative. Now, says Wilkinson, ASC must come up with a clear and executable plan with a distinct pay off. “We plan on telling businesses what we need from each of them for the project, exactly how much it is going to cost, and what it will accomplish,” he says. The ASC is working on a preliminary draft and hopes to have a working draft by the end of the year.
A month after the tornado hit, downtown businesses were still grappling with the fallout. A subtle shift in wind direction caused a fresh wave of falling glass and downtown streets had to be closed again while debris was cleared and engineers began rechecking the remaining glass for damage. More than two months after the storm, glass was still falling on downtown Atlanta. Park workers vacuumed the grass in Centennial Park, but afterward maintenance crews were still running into trouble with some remaining glass in the park causing flat tires on lawn mowers. Eventually, near the end of May, officials ordered all the sod in the park replaced.
The ongoing fallout from the tornado has tested the city’s resolve, but it has also reinforced the value of cooperation among law enforcement and private industry groups. “These sort of cleanup efforts emphasize how well we work together,” says Shaddick, whose CNN headquarters building lost hundreds of windows and sustained significant damage during the storm. “Getting people to work is essential to us. Because of our public-private partnerships, we could do that safely.”
Teresa Anderson is a senior editor at Security Management.