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HomeNewsPublic Event Terrorism: Is Reaction the Best Form of Action?

Public Event Terrorism: Is Reaction the Best Form of Action?

Q: As the security manager of a large venue in Australia at times open to tens of thousands of members of the public, recent terrorist attacks in Paris, Belgium, Iraq, Pakistan to name just a few, certainly keep us awake at night.

There’s a prevailing wisdom that seems to take for granted reactive response to an attack is the pinnacle of proactive response, while operationally things continue very much as they have done before. Obviously, the challenges are acute at many levels – carried bombs, firearms, edged weapons, incendiaries – it’s hard to detect these in controlled spaces, let alone on Grand Final Day. Is reaction the best form of action? Or could technology allow us to do more?

A: There are sensing solutions that will detect explosives, metal weapons, flammables but the process of screening for them involves expensive hardware, is time consuming and generally speaking, simply moves the vulnerable waiting crowds further away from the sterile zone. Consider that in Belgium, the bombers were on the public side of the airport terminal – it’s a tough one. However, in the U.S. many sports grounds have gone with magnetometers on the gates so there are precedents. 

Simple bag checks are more effective than they seem. In Paris it was basic bag checks by uniformed security staff that thwarted 3 of the bombers at the Stade de France and saved many lives. And the Stade de France incident also suggested it is better to keep attackers outside a stadium – the impact of explosive devices is significantly reduced in open spaces where it’s also much easier for the public to run away. Comparatively, in Baghdad, a failure of checks led to the bombing of a football match.

But it's not all about bag checks. Packed smaller venues have their own vulnerabilities. At the Bataclan music hall where 129 young people were murdered and in the recent attack on a gay nightclub in Orlando where 49 people were brutally murdered, the use of assault rifles rendered typical club security arrangements utterly meaningless. There are options for such venues. Mantrap entries at clubs supported by magnetometers and pat-downs would isolate potential threats while facilitating a crash evacuation and rapid response – even a few minutes delay would be enough in a well-designed space with sufficient exit points. 

Response to events operationally at big venues is something that needs to be planned in advance and communicated to security staff. It’s also worthwhile informing the public – perhaps best done during quiet game days at a stadium – so that those fans in the crowd who know the drill can communicate it to those around them in the event of an incident. If entry points can be limited, then armed police presence lends greater deterrence as well as improved ability to respond to incidents in real time, though armed response comes with risks in crowded places. 

A well-led security team supported by video surveillance operationally interlocked with police and other agencies, including emergency response teams is also vital. You might work with law enforcement to keep track of suspects, though this is an organic business more easily managed in a casino using IVA than in a sports stadium. You will certainly have multiple layers of law enforcement support on big game days, at the operational and response level. 

Things like metal detection and explosives detection can also be applied randomly or in the event of suspicious behaviour and their mere presence may be a deterrent. Controlling the distribution of hazardous substances and weapons in the community is another key aspect of protection that is central to, yet beyond the purview of security managers. It’s something powerful coalitions of organisations must take to government at the highest levels in order to drive legislation. 

Other things that should be considered include large stand-off distances to keep vehicles away from mass gatherings, building blast walls where possible and building with materials that are blast resistant and will not contribute shrapnel – this is particularly the case with glass, which should be reinforced or avoided. It's important to train security staff to detect the signs of high anxiety that can sometimes be seen in perpetrators before an attack and to see the behaviour of potential terrorists scoping out a space with an attack in mind. The behavioural patterns are distinct. 

Educating the wider public in what their response should be during an attack is somethat that falls on law enforcement and government departments and you'd want to stay on top of and weave in these guidelines to your own procedures. Speaking of procedures, you want your procedures to be rock solid – approved at the highest levels, thoroughly tested and familiar to your whole team. 

When considering these sorts of threats, it’s difficult to avoid feeling the problem stems from the fact different groups of human beings in different ways justify, aggrandise, tolerate or sanction violence against their co-passengers on spaceship Earth. We can react to violence and detect attempts to use violence but demanding and facilitating a global rejection of violence should be the fundamental goal of security and law enforcement professionals wherever they may be in the world – concordia salus. ♦

By John Adams


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