The moment one of the Boston bombs went off

News Analysis: Safety in numbers? Managing security in crowded places

In the aftermath of last month’s Boston bombings, Mark Venables looks at the options for protecting the public at such large open events.

The horrific bombings at the Boston Marathon on 15 April showed once again that any event attracting large crowds must be seen as a potential target for terrorism. Serious questions remain about how to ensure public safety at sporting events, but there is a big difference between securing a stadium and securing a street course.

When it comes to major stadium events the venue can be protected by security checks with scanners and metal detectors, and routes of entry and exit can be controlled. Bomb disposal teams can search for planted devices, and spectators can be screened for weapons and explosives. There are no such luxuries for outdoor events: they provide a multitude of options for terrorist attacks.

Basic vigilance from spectators along with enhanced security and surveillance seem to be the main weapons in the security arsenal. “The main issue is that any event which attracts large masses of people is a potential target; organisations will always have to be extra-vigilant in ensuring that people are made aware of such threats,” explains Neil Dave, consulting analyst in Frost & Sullivan’s Asia Pacific Aerospace & Defence practice. “Spreading information awareness in highly crowded venues by having banners and TV screens which compel the general public to pay attention to suspicious activities is a crucial step in promoting safety awareness.”

David Holley, a Boston-based sports security expert for risk consulting firm Kroll Advisory Solutions expects a more intense public safety presence at next year’s Boston marathon. But he doesn’t believe that even the finish line will be cordoned off. “It would change the tenor of the event,” he says. “The participatory nature of the Boston Marathon makes it special. The people cheering at the finish get so into it, they feel like they’re one of the runners. It’s a hard one to address.” Especially since restricting the finish area would be logistically difficult, with many hotels and shops and side streets close by.

“We operate in a free society,” Holley added, “and that sometimes comes at a cost.” Holley’s advice to anyone concerned about attending a mass sporting event is this: “Remain vigilant. Be aware of your surroundings. Keep your eyes open to more than just the events.”

Event organisers will use more crowd surveillance technology, and maybe more bomb-sniffing dogs. “I have to imagine there will be more engagement between security and fans,” Holley added. “Where people are acting oddly, security will be asking more questions.”

Invasion of privacy

Since 9/11 there has been a concentrated focus by US security agencies on implementing high-grade, technology intensive security measures to ensure public safety. However, invasion of privacy has been a major by-product of these measures.

Airports now have full-body scanners that cut through levels of clothing to detect weapons or other objects on travellers. Unfortunately, even with the introduction of high-profile electronic security systems, there have been accusations of profiling of random passengers suspected to be concealing weapons or explosives based on their race or nationality.

“Airport security devices are expected to continue towards being more reliant on technology to curb the reliance on invasive pat-downs and checks,” Neil Dave says.

“Rather than scanners it will be another technology that may prove to be the best tool for security services: surveillance cameras. The most important development to take place is an increase in spending on surveillance.”

The apprehension of the two Boston suspects was prompted by their initial identification from a department store surveillance camera. “A greater number of CCTV cameras being installed regularly across parts of cities would be a first step in curbing this threat,” Dave explained. “The bottom line is that people must be willing to forego some privacy when attending an event where public security is the prime concern.”

Preventing attacks may not always be possible, given the technical complexities of identifying suspicious activities well in advance of any incident. However, with the advent of smart surveillance, agencies can expect to overcome this challenge as well.

The National Centre for Spectator Sports Safety and Security (NCS4) was established in 2006 at the University of Southern Mississippi. Director Lou Marciani explained the complexities that marathon organisers face. “It’s an outdoor event with no access control: 26 miles of opportunities for people to come in and out,” he says.

He explained that a large part of the security strategy focuses on keeping out those who may pose a threat. “You need to have some control of who’s coming in,” he says. “Someone can walk up in the middle of the marathon disguised as a runner or a spectator, and we have no way of knowing.

“We have to look at more sensor-related tech to detect any explosives. That’s the direction I would like to see us go; to look at technology to cover a greater landscape. This will expand our idea of what a venue means.”

One technology set to be implemented in Boston along with many other cities is facial recognition surveillance capabilities.

“There will definitely be a lot of spending on surveillance by many other cities in the US,” says Neil Dave. “Although the general outcry and criticisms by the public would be that this would curb privacy, there will be more surveillance cameras installed across many nooks and corners of major cities to curb violence and terrorism.”

Dave believes that technology-intensive measures will be the answer to keeping up with security requirements while addressing human rights concerns. “Cities can move towards becoming safer by implementing surveillance cameras with automated monitoring,” he says. “According to this technology, human monitoring of surveillance recordings is not required 24/7.” Instead, combinations of movements and activities are constantly processed and analysed by the systems to deduce whether an action is potentially suspicious.

Lessons from Israel

When it comes to dealing with the threat of terrorist attack there is no nation with more experience than Israel. Rafi Sela, a former official with the Israel Defence Forces, points to a selection of images taken seconds before the fateful explosion in Boston. The barriers alongside the road feature security staff in yellow jackets every few yards. Almost all appear to have their backs to the crowd when the first bomb explodes behind them.

“Trained security people don’t watch the race,” says Sela, “they watch the crowd. In Israel, you cannot leave a bag unattended for more than ten seconds before someone will ask questions.

“It is all about people and not their belongings,” he adds, referring to Israel’s use of individual profiling, a controversial subject in the US. “Israel relies heavily on the efficiency of its intelligence apparatuses, and most of the terrorist plots are being thwarted before they materialise.”

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