In April 2011, as some 100,000 fans converged in Talladega, Ala., for another NASCAR extravaganza, event organizers slipped into emergency mode.
With tornadoes spotted throughout the immediate area, a unified command center formed at the race track to broadcast instructions and warnings. Police officers and track security along with federal and state agencies coordinated efforts within the facility, sending text messages to track executives, drivers, public relations reps — anyone working at the event.
Emergency managers in the command center also coordinated with local police to reach out to the 30,000 to 40,000 campers that were already hunkered down at the site.
“We knew we were going to have some bad weather,” said Mike Lentz, senior director of security for NASCAR. And they did: Four tornadoes appeared within five miles of the race track, and while the twisters did not disrupt any race activities, emergency planners knew they had successfully safeguarded the scene.
It doesn’t take something as dramatic as tornadoes at a car race to spell potential big-event disaster. Even seemingly tame gatherings can offer their share of mayhem, as when more than 100 rowdy fans were arrested and 200 or so more taken into protective custody when country star Kenny Chesney performed at the Gillette Stadium in Foxborough, Mass., in August 2009.
Bring together 80,000 people for a football game or 20,000 for a concert and the possibility exists for an emergency situation. During these events, the venue becomes a temporary city, with all the potential perils that implies. The combination of large numbers of people, in a confined space, with spirits high and alcohol flowing can lead to catastrophe. It’s a threat that promoters, venue operators and emergency planners have learned to take seriously.
Dalai Lama Lockdown
Emergency managers can reel off the dangers inherent in any major event, from a crush in the doorways to an active shooter in the bleachers, from drunken brawls to the famed and sometimes fatal soccer riots seen in Europe.
Dave Touhey is well aware of the risks.
As senior vice president and general manager of the Verizon Center in Washington, D.C., he routinely sees crowds of 20,000 or more assemble for hockey games, rock concerts, circuses and ice follies. His most recent challenge came from more sacred precincts: an 11-day world peace event featuring the Dalai Lama that drew up to 16,000 people to any one session.
Security took on an international component, with venue operators working in close cooperation with the sacred guest’s handlers in the State Department. To pre-empt political violence, Touhey kept tabs on the Homeland Security Information Network, which broadcasts unclassified potential threats. His team brought in metal detectors for the event, kept close watch on crowd control, and were especially careful around the trinket vendors.
“We’re used to events handing out hats and towels. With this they had cleansing water and special beads,” Touhey said. “Some of the people, you wouldn’t think they were here for world peace, the way they were pushing through the crowds to get these things. So you have to manage around that too. It sounds easy when you talk about it, but when you are here for 14 hours a day, 11 days in a row, it wears on you.”