The New Mass Gathering Security Reality

By Craig Harwood


How does security counter the terrorist threat at places of mass gathering? That IS the question, is it not? Firstly, it is flawed thinking if one believes by countering that the threat is negated in its entirety. Insidious, callous, cowardly and suicidal attacks by their nature are extremely difficult to thwart. When an offender is willing to die in the execution phase of his attack at any stage, damage mitigation becomes a sliding scale of balancing factors. Protective strategies are generally hamstrung by two major issues – cost and operational impact, both of which are real-world problems. Cost is a factor as someone has to pay at some point and it has to be commercially viable. The other issue is the operational impact of protective strategies – if operational security overlays destroy the experience or engagement of the public at the event or place, that in itself becomes an issue, as people simply do not come. This then becomes an outcome where the terrorist ‘wins’, as they have altered people’s lifestyle in fear of their actions and security’s burdensome strategies to defeat them.

The simple matter is, however, that a balancing act of degrees of operational palatability and financial viability exist. Once people understand that the new world paradigm is ‘we are all at risk at all times and safety and security have been reset downwards, whilst impact on our lives has been reset upwards’, they understand that the threat faced has to be countered at all levels at all times. Paranoia as a new reality? No, realism as a new reality. Some ‘things’ need to be given up to be able to deal with this evil.

The first thing is something that has already been given up – innocence. The world has some evil people residing in it with equally evil intent. The second thing lost already is a sense of safety. People do not feel safe in the true sense of the word because they are not. Governments and police services want to play down the threat and its impact in order not to create fear and social instability arising from those fears and prejudices. The reality is that the current methodology of attacks strike at the heart of freedom and Australians’ lifestyles. Of course, the only way forward is not to give in to fear; it is through solidarity, strength of character and a layered, integrated security approach and measured actions that Australia can fight such an insidious disease in its society.

There are some major points to be considered when operating a place of mass gathering. The attack methodology of terrorists (for the sake of this article, the focus is on Muslim extremists) is basically to kill and maim as many people as possible whilst gaining entry to paradise during the attack. Tactics include vehicle ramming attacks, which involve driving into large groups of innocent people; car and truck bombs (vehicle-borne improvised explosive devices or VBIED); suicide body bombs (SBIED); weapon attacks, such as gun and knife attacks; placement of improvised explosive devices (IEDs) around a major event, such as in rubbish cans; chemical attacks and cyber terrorism, plus a host of other methods too numerous to list.

One of Australia’s greatest strengths is that its people live in a free and open society, free to congregate and move together as they wish, which also makes them extremely vulnerable to these types of attacks. Places of mass gathering are not just at events or outside events, they exist on public transport, schools, shopping centres and the general streetscape of cities. This means that if security at stadiums and events is increased, the vulnerabilities at those events, once exposed, are simply moved to other areas of such an open society. The threat, in other words, is displaced to another more vulnerable location. For example, if security is increased at the Australian Open in Melbourne, Federation Square, where many gather during the event to watch tennis on large screens, becomes a more attractive and achievable target. When one location is target hardened, there are still vulnerabilities around it and at other locations. The threat is displaced, not negated; that job rests with intelligence and law enforcement partners or vigilant team members.

Security professionals need to ensure all stakeholders operate on the same communication protocols, terminology and information-sharing methodologies. All stakeholders, including patrons attending such events, need to be informed of what to do and how to do it during an attack. The strength of knowledge rests in the fact that in knowing and sharing information, everyone becomes more vigilant and may pick up pre-attack indicators that help thwart an attack. After all, everyone is at risk, thus everyone needs to take ownership of safety. The general public are very supportive of safety and security information and layered security in today’s day and age. The loss of innocence and number of occurrences across the world has shifted the paradigm, which means guests and patrons in fact react negatively when venues are not adequately protected and security is not functioning as it should. Mobile number reporting hotlines, safety signage, overt physical presence of law enforcement and security personnel is a must and helps keep information flowing that could be critical to deterring, intercepting or reacting immediately to an attack.

Physical security personnel should be well selected, trained and licensed. All venue and management staff, no matter what their function, should be included in any security management plan and emergency response plan as a resource to be vigilant and have response roles to augment the site security and emergency management roles. Site induction compliance and role and responsibility briefings should occur every shift. Command and control hierarchies should be well defined and visible to all via uniform or luminous vest differences. Command hierarchy and redundancy roles should be well articulated throughout the organisation and personnel should be well versed in other supporting roles so, in the event of absence or during an incident, functionality can continue.

All roles should have basic first aid training to support in the immediate moments after a terrorist incident. This expense to the bottom line is more than covered by everyday capability of an organisation to mitigate injuries in the workplace and helps mentally prepare stakeholders for an attack and its consequences.

Obviously, the physical infrastructure of places of mass gathering should have had a security risk audit/assessment completed that categorises the risk(s) to the organisation and offers remedies for those risks. Today, vehicle separation and barriers to major pathways, access points and outdoor gathering spaces is the most fundamental baseline to counter the recent weaponising of common vehicles against pedestrians. Extensive venue coverage via CCTV and monitoring of same during events should also be a given.

Having experienced CCTV security control room operators, trained to spot abnormal or suspicious behaviour or post-attack, helping to coordinate law enforcement vectoring to an offender(s) location, initiate a lock down, evacuation or a combination of both, is imperative. A ‘God’s eye’ view by trained personnel of the facility can save many lives at critical times, as situational awareness and hence response can be coordinated more quickly.

This situational oversight should also be linked to an ability to use and broadcast  audio instructions to public spaces and across the facility or public space, in other words, the PA system should be situated at the CCTV control room operators seated position so real time audio instructions, updates and vectoring can be given to the public, first responders and other responding staff or elements.

It is now also critical to look harder at pushing hardened outer perimeter security further away from the venue/location to create safe buffer screened zones between the entrances and the main seating arena or main crowd areas. Hardened multiple rings of physical and infrastructure security are now a necessary evil to defeat or mitigate, as much as possible, multi-phase attacks at entrance points, to disperse patrons over a greater area, break up crowds and push any explosive device attack into open air environments.

This outer ring physical infrastructure, such as fences and crowd barriers, has been trialled at one major arena venue in Australia in the past and now needs to be implemented. This provides law enforcement, security staff and management time and space to understand the nature of an outer ring penetration or attack and respond accordingly and direct patrons to shelter or withdrawal to safer areas or exits.

Whilst these extra outer perimeter layers increase the time for patrons to get into the venue/event, well-trained teams can process large numbers of people quickly and efficiently. The sad fact is, it is better to have the attack initiated at a smaller entrance point in open air against fewer people than in a crowded enclosed seating bowl. After all, when fighting such evil methodologies of attack, harm minimisation ultimately comes down to minimising the number of lives lost or people injured. Hence, the loss of innocence discussion earlier and a reset downwards of public safety.

Patrons should all be electronically searched at the outer defensive rings by hand wands or walk-through scanners, and bags should be banned, cloaked at an outer perimeter location (including all staff bags) or only be made of transparent plastic. Vehicles accessing the venue, no matter the patron or service provider type, all need to be searched – this includes the occupants going through the same process as patrons at gate entry or member’s entry points. Security does not recognise class structures or VIPs; all patrons need to undergo the same vetting and screening process.

Post Manchester, the defensive security posture has to continue well past event conclusion. Security considerations have to extend to maintaining vigilance and proactive methodologies until well after the crowds have dissipated. The displacement of large event crowds into unvetted people will continue to be a challenge for event and places of mass gathering managers.   Considerations of scaled cessation of events now must be managed to ensure crowds are dissipated in a controlled and safe fashion.

Of course, emergency management team structures should be well versed and practise all possible attack methodologies on their venues using desktop exercises and realism-based training scenarios. These training scenarios should stress-test all levels of the organisation and be run in an honest and transparent manner to ensure the organisation identifies any deficiencies and has a clear mandate to rectify these deficiencies in a timely manner. Many organisations do not like to expose their weaknesses in management capability, infrastructure or human resource capability; however, it is better to be transparent and understand the capability of an organisation before an event than during it.

In line with this, management teams should be communicating with like venues across the country to form relationships and understand innovation and best practice. Competitors will all feel the same devastating effect from a successful attack and thus competitive friction needs to be swept aside for mutual survival and protection. Management needs to drive this non-competitive sharing of information and effective strategies in this area. Attack one, attack all is the lesson learnt from across the world in relation to patronage, post-attack engagement and economic fallout. Managers should join organisations like the Venue Management Association (VMA) to help facilitate information sharing, relationship building and access to best practice.

Australia has lost its innocence. The community is no longer immune or safe from these cowardly and evil attacks and now is the time for everyone to unite, review, communicate and act. Australians will prevail through strength of character and action.

As both a former member of the Victorian Police Special Operations Group and Founding Director of Securecorp, one of Australia largest and most successful security and event specialists, Craig Harwood has many years experience in both event security and counter terrorism.


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