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A Conventional Victory

​THE REPUBLICAN PARTY may have lost the November presidential election, but it scored a victory in security planning for its national convention, defeating a tropical storm, protesters, and a host of security and safety threats.

The convention was held August 27 to 30 in Tampa, Florida, with 2,286 delegates and 2,125 alternates as well as visiting dignitaries, other guests, and approximately 15,000 members of the media. The venue was the Tampa Bay Times Forum, while the press corps’ base of operations was the Tampa Convention Center. Both buildings were controlled for the duration of the convention, and for a month beforehand, by the Committee on Arrangements for the Republican National Committee (RNC).

Security Designation
As with other political nominating conventions, the event was named a National Special Security Event (NSSE), a special category of event with national or international impact. The creation of the NSSE designation goes back to the Clinton Administration’s May 1998 issuance of Presidential Decision Directive 62 that established the roles of federal agencies at large events. This was followed by the Presidential Threat Protection Act of 2000 that authorized the U.S. Secret Service to participate “in the planning, coordination, and implementation of security operations at special events of national significance.”

These acts and directives were drafted even before 9-11 in response to an accumulation of domestic terrorist incidents such as the 1995 Murrah Federal Building bombing in Oklahoma City and the Centennial Park bombing at the 1996 Atlanta Summer Olympics, as well as attacks on U.S. interests abroad, such as the 1996 Khobar Towers bombing in Saudi Arabia.

Whether an event gets an NSSE designation is decided by the secretary of the U.S. Department of Homeland Security (DHS). Criteria considered include the number of attendees that are expected; the historical, political, cultural, or symbolic significance of the event; whether dignitaries will be present; the length of the event; the amount of media coverage; the resources of state and local jurisdictions to handle the event or their level of experience with similar events; the number of jurisdictions involved; and the threat level of terrorism, criminal activity, or civil disobedience.

Former U.S. Secret Service Deputy Assistant Director Mark Camillo, a 21-year veteran of the agency who has worked on a number of previous NSSEs, and who is a member of the ASIS International Council on Global Terrorism, Political Instability, and International Crime, explains that these criteria, applied to the event, “determine whether it rises to the top of criticality… or drops into a lower level.”

Typical NSSEs include presidential inaugurations; major sports events such as the Super Bowl, and Olympic events held in the United States, such as the 2002 Winter Olympics in Salt Lake City, Utah. State of the Union addresses and the state funerals of past presidents Ronald Reagan and Gerald Ford have also been NSSEs.

Camillo explains that once an NSSE is declared, the Secret Service automatically becomes the lead agency for operational security, the FBI is the lead agency for crisis response and intelligence gathering, and the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) becomes the lead for incident recovery management.

Camillo says that “if you have an event occurring in the United States, generally that event is already being worked on by state and local public safety entities and is being monitored by federal entities. A whole host of communication bridges are rapidly established” to join all of the stakeholders, which can include law enforcement at the federal, state, and local level; local public safety; public health; the military; private security; local and state government, and more.

Together, these groups will create a “layered security approach of people, processes, and technologies,” Camillo states. A notable change in recent years is the inclusion of private security as a partner. “That’s where we are today versus 12 years ago, when the private side was not considered as critical,” he says.

Getting on Track
Albert V. Concordia, CPP, now assistant vice president, global security, of ACE Group of Philadelphia, served as the RNC Committee on Arrangements’ director of security for the convention. He and the security team he headed coordinated with the government agencies to ensure that every aspect of safety and security would be addressed. That included developing “a comprehensive, proactive security plan to ensure the protection of our employees, venues, proprietary information, and assets,” he says.

Concordia came on board in September 2011 to assemble the security group and initiate the planning process. The timeline was a lot like a train, he explains. “The train is coming and you have to be prepared for each stop along the way. Each stop had to be in line with the business units and the construction of the convention facility itself, both at the media venue—the Tampa Convention Center—and at the Tampa Bay Times Forum,” he says. The timeline for security then carried on through the actual convention and then the deconstruction phase when it was all over.

The early phases of planning involved security assessments of the two sites, exploring the roles that the proprietary security of both venues could play, as well as meeting with local police to determine “what the police would provide and where their services stopped and we needed to complement them,” he says.

At first, the security group worked out of the Bank of America building in downtown Tampa. When the RNC took control of the two conference center venues in July, the team moved to the Times Forum. “In effect, the sites became the property of the Committee on Arrangements. From that point forward, we were responsible for operations and security,” says Concordia. “But up until that point, we worked hand-in-hand with the property owners to evaluate the in-house security processes and capabilities in relation to what we needed done.”

The security group conducted vulnerability mitigation and site security planning at the convention venues and the RNC Committee on Arrangements’ offices. It developed security plans for the transportation systems that took delegates to and from the convention venue and dozens of hotels. The security group was also responsible for the issuance of credentials for the convention, screening processes at security checkpoints, crowd management, venue access control, and security coordination with the protective details of Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney, and other VIPs.

At the beginning of the timeline, weekly meetings were held among all the stakeholders involved with the convention including the Secret Service, the FBI, the Tampa Police Department, the Hillsborough County Sheriff’s Office, the U.S. Coast Guard, FEMA, and others. “There are a lot of moving parts, and they all have to be represented at the table,” Concordia says.

As the barreling train of the convention drew closer, there were daily meetings, and finally “twice daily meetings with both internal and external partners to go over the plans for both the forum and the convention center,” he states. One group of important stakeholders, for instance, was local hospitals and emergency medical services (EMS). “If there was to be a catastrophic event, the trauma center and all who support it, like EMS, would be the lifeline to survivability,” Concordia states.

At these meetings, stakeholders “communicated what they were doing and that could range from security at the venue to the transport infrastructure to the airports that fed the event to the lodgings where the delegates and others would be residing during the event,” he says.

An example of the kinds of issues that had to be addressed was the placement of so-called “free-speech zones” where citizens could hold demonstrations. The team wanted to make sure that law enforcement would be able to protect attendees and the venue itself from any violence that might arise from protests at those sites.

As a part of the coordination process, the Coast Guard communicated its plans to establish a Federal Security Zone (FSZ) on the water near the two venues. Vessels that were moored inside the zone could not be moved, and anyone trying to access the boats would come under scrutiny. Recreational boating was also prohibited in some areas on certain days and times, and at other times, it was allowed with mandatory screenings of any boat entering the FSZ.

Emergency Readiness
All the security procedures and processes in the world could not stop one convention gate crasher named Isaac—Hurricane Isaac, that is. As the storm approached across the open waters toward Tampa, it became apparent that emergency plans were going to be tested in reality.

The security group had practiced for such an extreme weather possibility. “Many news organizations were calling and inquiring about our plan and if we, in fact, had a plan,” Concordia says. “I advised our senior management and our communication director to acknowledge that we [did], but not to elaborate on any specific details. As Isaac approached, we executed our plan in an incremental way so as to not draw media attention away from the convention and have security become the central story.”

During the lead-up to the storm and during the storm itself, “FEMA gave us a full-time representative at our command post,” Concordia states. The security group also made sure that “all the equipment, metal detectors, checking equipment, and personnel were under shelter and cover until Isaac passed,” he says.

Isaac ultimately caused the convention to be delayed for one day, although technically it did open on Monday, August 27. That day, as the storm raged, the convention was opened without the delegates being present and almost immediately adjourned, which followed the plans that had been made ahead of time. The crisis management plan also called for the delegates to shelter in place where appropriate. While that was a good option for those who were staying at hotels in the city center or further inland, there were about 1,000 to 1,500 delegates staying on the shoreline beach areas, and there was a contingency plan for those delegates in the event that an evacuation order was given. In that case, the delegates would have been evacuated to a secondary location. Ultimately, Concordia says, “We didn’t move them during the storm, and they were fine, but we were ready. It came close, but we didn’t have to do it.”

Up and Running
Isaac had moved far enough out of the Tampa area by Tuesday, August 28, to allow the convention to properly begin. Once the event was underway, Concordia and his team worked out of an around-the- clock command center in the office space of the forum. “We had representatives there from all the police agencies, FEMA, and the contract security services,” he says, “as well as proprietary representatives from the media, operations, convention floor operations, and transportation.” There was also a representative from the Secret Service’s multiagency command center (MACC). A representative from Concordia’s security command center was at the MACC. Both of these latter individuals “were trained how to, if we lost communication in both locations, bring up the emergency communication systems so that we could communicate with the other center,” Concordia explains.

Physical security. Throughout the twin venues, various security technologies were in place to control access, screen delegates and other attendees, and validate credentials. Concordia cannot discuss the specifics of the security technologies employed by the various agencies and by the security group.

Staffing. Technology was not as important as personnel. “We upgraded some of the existing systems [at the venues], but we depended more on the human factor,” says Concordia. “We had propriety personnel there 24/7 at critical places.” They were the security staffs of the venues.

That force was supplemented by other temporary personnel. The security group had recruited a stand by force of former military, police, and emergency management personnel. Human resources helped to coordinate credentialing and identification of these stand-by personnel, working with the Secret Service and local police to expedite their arrival for duty.

They also contracted with a security services firm for additional officers. Finding a firm that could provide the needed personnel was a challenge because private security firms typically use off-duty police officers who are usually working these hours as temps, “but in this case, all of the police were on duty, and no one was off,” notes Concordia. Admiral Security Services and Century Security Event Staffing were eventually selected to supply additional security officers on top of the proprietary forces of both convention facilities.

The officers who were hired for the convention were trained by the security group. “We handled the training for both locations. We had several seminars, starting with how the overall security plan worked, where the entry points would be, how to man them, how we handled screening with Secret Service, and checking credentials,” Concordia explains. There were specific training sessions on the various levels of access that each type of credential gave the wearer. Trainees also learned how to efficiently process people to keep waits at entry points to a minimum.

Layered security. A key area of the security plan was layered access control through credentialing.

The operations group of the Committee on Arrangements issued credentials to the delegates that allowed them into the transportation system and certain parts of the convention floor. “The credentials identified each individual, where they needed to be, and what their function was,” Concordia explains. These credentials were checked by security personnel as the delegates came out of their hotels to board transport to the convention venues. Security used a proprietary technology aimed at spotting counterfeits.

The delegates’ credentials were checked again at the entry points into the forum. There, security and the Secret Service also had metal detectors and explosives detection. “Each and every credential and every person was checked by us and by the Secret Service every time they were admitted to the building, and once inside, there were secondary and tertiary checks within the building to segregate who belonged where,” he says. Delegates, media, guests, and the general population each had designated areas, and their credentials clearly indicated where they were authorized to be.

U.S. senators and representatives attending the convention were also protected by the U.S. Capitol Police, while other VIPs, such as state governors and celebrities, had their own security details as well. The operations group of the Committee on Arrangements issued these individual details their own credentials delineating their level of access. The security group interfaced with these protective details, and the Secret Service “managed how they came in and where their protective details needed to be,” Concordia states.

Another group that needed credentialing was the media and their associated production teams who came with masses of equipment. Several areas in the forum were designated for the media to use so that they could capture the images they needed. There were interview areas as well. The nightly newscasts from all the major networks were broadcast from the forum. “So a certain operational tempo had to be maintained, and we had to work with their staff to make sure that everything ticked along correctly,” he says. “But they…underwent the same security as everyone else.”

The result of this hard work by so many dedicated professionals was a well-run, incident-free Republican National Convention. A few peanuts thrown by two delegates at a camera woman was the worst incident that occurred apart from the weather, making the event an unqualified success from a security perspective.

Ann Longmore-Etheridge is an associate editor of Security Management and editor of ASIS Dynamics.