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Major Special Events Planning

Preparing for any large public gathering is all about contingencies.

April 25, 2011  |  by Amaury Murgado - Also by this author

  • What if it rains?
  • What if more people show up than expected?
  • What if someone has a medical emergency?
  • What if there is an accident in front of the venue entrance?
  • What if it gets too hot and there are heat casualties?
  • What if there is a bomb threat?
  • What if we run out of parking?
  • What if the opposition stages a counter-demonstration?

Believe it or not, all of these things have happened to me and I consider myself lucky because they only represent a small fraction of what could have happened.

Once you "what if" common issues like weather, traffic flow, and normal criminal activity, you can graduate to the "what the hell" questions. You know, like when you hear an explosion, turn, and say, "What the hell?"

So, what is your contingency plan for a hostage-taking emotionally disturbed person, an active shooter, a riot, or a terrorist attack? If you're thinking planning for a terrorist attack is a bit over the top, let me reframe the issue for you. Aside from the potential death, mayhem, and destruction a suicide bomber might cause, if you didn't consider it, when it is all said and done, who do you think they are going to blame for the mess?

After the agency gets reamed in the media, they always get rid of the lowest common  The unspoken collateral damage in any bureaucracy is always the scapegoat. Therefore, anything that involves large gatherings is suspect and deserves the best planning possible. There are limits to any organization and it may come down to just having a few extra officers on site, identifying a landing zone nearby for MEDEVAC, establishing a possible staging area in case of an emergency, and briefing any surrounding agencies in case you call for assistance. It may be very minimalistic, but it still qualifies as contingency planning in anybody's book.

Horses, Dancers, and The Three Kings

For the last seven years, my jurisdiction's Hispanic community has celebrated a holiday related to Christmas often called "The Three Kings." The local Hispanic Business Council sponsors this event, which typically draws between 5,000 and 8,000 attendees. It's an event that offers free food, music, toys for children 12 and under, and a raffle of between 25 and 100 free bicycles.

The venue usually stays packed the entire time until the last bicycle is given away. The event has always been well received and the children love it, but planning for it is a major undertaking. This was my first year running the security element for this event. It was also the first year it was held in a new location; one half the original size.   

I reviewed my checklists, met with the Hispanic Business Council planners, and conducted several site surveys with them and later with members of my command and control team. I also conferred with past lieutenants and created a new operations plan. During the planning, I brought attention to as many possible threats and concerns as I felt necessary. Some were considered and some were not. Regardless, everything was documented and I hit the ground running.

I arrived early and observed things unfolding quickly. Two hours before the start there was already a line that stretched a quarter of a mile long and parking was filling up. I realized immediately that my planned overflow parking was not going to be enough. Furthermore, my security and traffic detail wasn't even scheduled to be in place yet so I couldn't do anything about it. Then, 20 minutes before the actual start, I got hit with the first big operational change.

One of three Hispanic Business Council coordinators had asked a local Hispanic Paso Fino horse club to participate in the kick-off. These horses perform with a fancy gait and are a marvelous sight to see. The club brought eight horses, a truck and trailer full of singers and musicians, and an additional set of Three Kings actors that needed costumes in order to make their grand entrance. The problem was no one had told me.

Right before it happened, I was told only that the club was presenting a horse and buggy. That was an understatement. When this group arrived, it consisted of more members, support people, vehicles, and horses than I had officers present. There was no planning for their parking or for creating a staging area. But more importantly, we didn't have time to adjust our crowd control plans. As I tried frantically to adjust in vain, the entourage came across and 300 parents and children simultaneously break ranks and rush forward in order to get a closer look and take pictures.

There would be many more hiccups caused by the smaller venue that went beyond my planning. It's true when they say the devil is in the details. To our credit, however, all we suffered were two sets of temporarily missing children and an elderly woman nearly fainting because she had not taken her blood pressure medication.

At our post-event debriefing a week later with the Hispanic Business Council, we candidly discussed our strengths and weaknesses, and eventually came up with a list of lessons learned. I later assembled all of this information into an after action report and gave everyone involved a copy. Our hard work paid off and we are already well ahead of the game for next year.

Final Thoughts

In addition to the independent study course from FEMA, you can find other good reference materials for such events, including one from the U.S. Department of Justice, Office of Community Oriented Policing Services (COPS) called "Planning and Managing Security for Major Special Events." Taking the time to do your research will be well worth the effort.

Just because you have limited resources doesn't mean you have limited liability. Learn to deal with Murphy's Law in a productive way because anything that can happen usually does.

Amaury Murgado is a retired Army Reserve Master Sergeant with more than 30 years of martial arts experience who currently serves as the Special Operations Lieutenant for the Osceola County Sheriff's Office in Kissimmee, Florida.

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