Connecting state and local government leaders
Governments at all levels, as well as law enforcement, need close coordination and an eye on emerging threats to keep spectators and athletes safe.
In the Women’s World Cup more than 9,000 miles away in Australia and New Zealand, the quarter-finals are under way, and in just a little more than a week, the 2023 champion will be crowned. Security planning for the month-long event, though, started long before the first kick—more than two years before the tournament began.
Security preparations for next year’s Super Bowl in Las Vegas in February started this month last year. The long run-up to such events is not uncommon when you consider the massive deployment of resources required.
The Super Bowl in Los Angeles last year, for example, involved more than 10 federal agencies, 13 local law enforcement departments and thousands of officers; bomb sniffing dogs; cybersecurity measures; military aircraft, helicopters and drones; and numerous other measures.
Every year, the federal government along with its state and local counterparts outlines its efforts to keep the Super Bowl safe. It is one of around 40 designated special events each year to be protected in such a way. But such designations are about to expand dramatically in the coming months as planning starts for several major international sporting events coming to these shores in the next few years.
First, the U.S. will host the Men’s World Cup—along with Canada and Mexico—in 2026. Two years later, Los Angeles will welcome the Summer Olympic and Paralympic Games. All three are massive affairs with worldwide audiences, and are highly valued targets for terrorism.
For the U.S. government, these events amount to having 40 Super Bowls, sometimes simultaneously in various cities.
“Just for context, the Super Bowl is two years of planning,” said FBI Special Agent Matthew Smith during a May panel discussion hosted by the National Institute of Justice. “So now you're going to have 40 Super Bowls. It's no longer one venue. You no longer have one x marks the spot where coverage has to occur.”
Drone Strikes Are an Emerging Threat
As all levels of government start coordinating on security for these big international events, a new element in planning is emerging threats like cyberattacks or drone strikes.
Already, governments worldwide have started designating so-called no drone zones. Before February’s Super Bowl in Arizona this year, the Federal Aviation Administration designated the Phoenix area as a “No Drone Zone,” meaning drone operators who entered it without permission faced confiscation, prosecution and fines that exceeded $30,000.
Ahead of next year’s Olympics and Paralympics in Paris, the French government announced in May it would deploy 35,000 security and military personnel to protect the opening ceremony from drones.
Drone threats could be simple, like the potential for creating a distraction or causing a mid-air collision, or could be more sinister like unauthorized surveillance, dropping substances or even attacking a crowd of people, said Jeffrey Starr, chief marketing officer at counter drone technology company D-Fend Solutions.
Law enforcement has several options when it comes to protecting major events from unauthorized drones, but they all have their drawbacks. Jamming technology, for instance, can bring a swift resolution to the issue, but also could affect other networks and communications systems. And while shooting a drone down seems intuitive, it could cause panic in crowded stadium settings or be unsuccessful.
Gaining control of the drone may be a more effective method, Starr said, as it can then be flown away and landed in a designated zone. “This control-based approach puts safety first and foremost, and still deals with the problem at hand,” he said.
A spokesperson for the Federal Aviation Administration said the agency “works closely with our security partners” to plan for major sporting events.
“Temporary Flight Restrictions limit non-essential flights near these events and apply to both traditional aircraft and drones,” the spokesperson said in an email. “The FAA, FBI and law enforcement agencies closely monitor the airspace for unauthorized operations and take appropriate action when any aircraft appears to pose a credible safety or security threat.”
For its part, Smith said the FBI is “already working with international partners on constantly evaluating what newest technologies are coming out,” including new drone capabilities. Staying ahead of those threats, though, becomes “a combination of cat and mouse and LeapFrog,” Starr said, as it is incumbent on authorities monitoring threats and then providers coming to market with a counter to that new threat.
Ensuring state and local governments have the authority to deal with drones is also a key component in countering the evolving threat. Typically, federal agencies take the lead on counter-drone efforts, but legislation introduced in June would create new opportunities for federal agencies to coordinate counter-drone measures at the state and local level and give local law enforcement the tools to counteract potential threats.
Virtual Threats Call for Coordination
In addition to physically securing big sporting events, there is the growing threat of cyberattacks. Preparing for virtual and physical threats calls for coordination. Those who have helped host recent large-scale sporting events said having a centralized command center is the best way to coordinate the myriad law enforcement agencies involved.
The 2022 World Games in Birmingham, Alabama, was one of the first large-scale sporting events to be hosted after the COVID-19 pandemic with no limits on the number of spectators. Nick Sellers, the CEO of the event, said challenges came not only from managing public health, but also from ensuring that municipal, county, state and federal law enforcement worked together properly. Jefferson County alone has 36 municipalities all with some form of law enforcement agency, so it meant a lot of people in a room.
Centralized commands are common during Super Bowls as well. Bringing everyone together in one central space forces partners to forge a consistent structure and parameters for how to prioritize security emergencies and threats.
“What it did was it allowed all the law enforcement leaders to have coordinated consistency on any type of potential threat during a major event, where coordination is essential, and in real time, with all law enforcement,” Sellers said.
In addition to local and state law enforcement working together, federal agencies like the Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency, or CISA, start preparing for these events well ahead of time as part of what an agency spokesperson described as a “shared community responsibility.”
“Keeping fans, athletes and others safe at major sporting events requires the close collaboration of federal, state, and local agencies, international partners, the private sector, and the venues themselves,” the CISA spokesperson said in an email. “CISA’s support to these events starts months in advance, and includes exercise support, bomb threat and active shooter preparedness training, security surveys, vehicle ramming mitigation resources, and cybersecurity assistance, just to name a few.”
Sellers said the regional cooperation for the World Games was one of the “legacy benefits” that Birmingham and the surrounding area will feel from hosting the event last year. He said that while it can be challenging to get everyone on the same page, getting there stands everyone in good stead.
“It was a collective we, among the government structures and the law enforcement leaders that set the tone that frankly permeated throughout our entire organizing committee, community and region,” he said.