Security Lesson Learned - Boston

As an owner, operator, event manager, security chief, or attendee, imagine how prepared are you to respond to an emergency at your venue during your biggest annual event? Is your team ready to confront the unthinkable – a mass casualty situation at your venue? One that required an overwhelming response from local, state, and federal law enforcement, first responders, followed by the full alphabet soup of government agencies and local media that becomes national media and a global news story as fast video from a smart phone can travel.

On March 22, after more than two years of preparation, the Massachusetts Convention Center Authority put itself to the test, as ‘Operation Vanguard’ unfolded at the Boston Convention and Exhibition Center (BCEC). The exercise was among the industry’s largest, most comprehensive active shooter exercises to date with the goal of developing in a full-scale active shooter joint response plan for BCEC.

The exercise utilized the full complement of available local, state, and federal resources and included more than 300 representatives from the Boston Police Department, Boston Fire Department, Boston Emergency Medical Services, Massport, Massachusetts State Police, Massachusetts Department of Transportation, Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority, FBI, and the United States Secret Service, all of whom participated in, and developed protocols, to respond to an emergency at the BCEC.

It was made possible through a grant funded by the Department of Homeland Security, in conjunction with the Commonwealth of Massachusetts as part of the Baker Administration’s Large Venue Task Force. The group shares best practices and builds communications networks among the state’s high-profile venues – Gillette Stadium, Fenway Park, TD Garden, and the MCCA’s convention properties.

In addition, multiple industry leaders were in attendance including Boston Police Commissioner William Gross, Director of Department of Homeland Security Safety Act Office Bruce Davidson, IAVM President Brad Mayne, General Manager of Miami Beach Convention Center and former Deputy Director of the MCCA Fred Peterson, Boston Police Commissioner William Gross, and Amy Latimer President of TD Garden, member of both the MCCA’s board of directors and large Venue Task Force.

“Nothing is more important than the safety and security of visitors to TD Garden, so our team at the arena, working collaboratively with the members of the Large Venue Task Force, is continuously preparing for every situation,” Latimer said. “The training provided by the Massachusetts Convention Center Authority brought together leadership from first responder teams to provide real-world best practices. Witnessing active shooter drills and listening to the coordinated response of law enforcement was priceless and will be instrumental in ensuring that we all are ready for the unexpected.”

The active shooter exercises “unexpected” scenario was built around the BCEC’s largest annual event, a four-day gaming show that routinely pushes the limits of the BCEC’s daily capacity of 45,000 attendees. That’s where a group of three ISIS-inspired terrorists chose to turn a full day of fun and games into anything but. The assailants identified and exploited opportunities during times of especially heavy volume to smuggle weapons and a bomb into the venue. The terror team proceeded to casually make their way to the packed food court located on the west side of the BCEC.

With the two co-play terrorists waiting in the bathrooms flanking the food court the “computer-bomb” was left on a table and the terrorist departed the BCEC remotely detonating the device two minutes after walking out the front door. Amid the chaos, as hundreds fled the food court the two remaining terrorists emerged from the bathrooms firing indiscriminately into the panicked crowd along with tens of thousands of attendees trying to find and exit and escape the largest building in New England all at once.

There were several key objectives of the exercise and none more imperative than to evaluate our communication plan that is required to notify our attendees, staff, contractors, and first responders as fast as possible. In situations such as active shooter attacks seconds matter and having a coordinated plan that accounts for clear, consistent, communication needs to be the foundation of the plan. Once the plan has a strong foundation of fundamental essentials such as communication we attempted to build off of that through technology by sharing information such as “real-time” video with all of our first responders as well as have our 1st responder share “real-time” video back to us.

“Obviously, we want to prevent rather than react to an attack. In Boston, we’ve had first-hand experience with both over the last several years,” said David Gibbons, MCCA Executive Director. “The 2013 Boston Marathon bombings happened across the street from our other Boston venue, the Hynes Convention Center. We also prevented a planned attack at the 2015 Pokémon Convention at the Hynes working in close cooperation with our law enforcement partners leading up to the event.”

Throughout the entire two-plus year preparation period leading up to the full-scale exercise, it was clear that the MCCA would realize two key benefits that would deliver long term dividends. The first was the specialized response protocol for law enforcement and first responders at the BCEC. The second, and equally important, is the individual relationships created between and among our partner agencies who created a robust and flexible multi-jurisdictional communication network that was not only tested during the exercise but also can be instantly activated during an emergency. When every minute counts all of the good guys have each other on speed dial and in an emergency saving time directly impacts saving lives.

The challenges facing convention centers is especially daunting, as the buildings are by intent large, have multiple points of access, are open for long durations, and purposefully strive to be welcoming and convenient for attendees. It is identifying and addressing the need to balance safety and security while delivering a wonderful guest experience that makes drawing the line so difficult, especially because where the line is drawn often changes from event to event.

Over the last decade, safety and security has changed from a checklist item for events to a top priority for every show that comes to our venues. It is serious business and we’re thankful that so many of our partners in the industry feel the same. The effort to gather information and identify any vulnerabilities, whether it is the event itself or particular speakers or topics, is collaborative between all of the parties involved. Again, it is the willingness to share information and communicate constantly that helps us prepare and make security recommendations well in advance of arrival.

The MCCA and the participants are now in the process of evaluating every aspect of the active shooter exercise with our partners and partcicipants. Over the next couple of months, we will begin sharing our best practices and the lessons we learned – there are many – with our partners across the industry. Just as the communication through the active shooter exercise was critical to its success, sharing what we’ve learned will benefit every facility evaluating their respective security readiness, planning, and protocols.

Every venue, like every threat, is different, and the MCCA continues to invest heavily across our safety and security infrastructure alongside the training of our officers and staff. The Authority is currently navigating the application process to become Safety Act certified by the Department of Homeland Security. If successful, the MCCA would be the first in the industry to earn this designation in recognition of the commitment the Authority makes every day to keep guests safe and secure as they enjoy our venues and experience everything that makes Boston one of the world’s premier convention destinations.