Honoring Fallen Heroes: Special Security Requirements

The City of Virginia Beach has had considerable experience in dealing with special events. As a tourist destination, the city hosts many of those events – including outdoor concerts, marathons, and visits by U.S. and foreign dignitaries. The Virginia Beach Police Department (VBPD) and the other members of a special group of agencies dedicated to providing security services during such events fully understand the unique challenges associated with preparing for and providing a security environment adequate to the task. They also help facilitate the creation and sustainment of an environment conducive to each such activity planned.

Nonetheless, and despite all of its past experience, in the summer of 2011 the VBPD was faced with one of its most difficult special-event challenges. More specifically, the VBPD was tasked in early August 2011 with coordinating the security and traffic management plan for hosting an invitation-only memorial service honoring members of the Naval Special Warfare (NSW) community. NSW members comprised the majority of the 38 American and Afghan personnel who were killed earlier that month when a military helicopter was shot down in the Wardak province of Afghanistan.

Three Major Challenges 

As the home base for nearly half of the U.S. Navy’s SEAL (Sea, Air, and Land) teams, the city donated its Convention Center, special events staff, and numerous public safety professionals to provide both a fitting venue and a secure environment to help ensure there would be a dignified service honoring the NSW personnel killed in one of the deadliest single-day incidents in the Afghan war to date. That laudable goal could be achieved, though, only by overcoming three major challenges, as follows:

Challenge 1 – Security. The group’s first planning session focused on the complex and unique nature of the event. Every active and former member of the NSW – and the members of their families – would be invited to attend. The Governor of Virginia, the Chief of Naval Operations, and a long list of other state and national leaders – as well as numerous NATO (North Atlantic Treaty Organization) dignitaries – would be among the invited guests. Moreover, although the number of SEALs, family members, and dignitaries so closely concentrated were an obvious and attractive target for any possible terrorist threat, intelligence provided by the Joint Terrorism Task Force (JTTF) indicated that members of the Westboro Baptist Church (WBC) presented an even higher likelihood of protest activity. Because the Westboro group – a relatively small congregation (an estimated 40 members) in Topeka, Kansas – has gained a certain infamy for inflammatory and offensive conduct during military funerals, JTTF intelligence also warned of WBC protesters who might arrive and attempt to disrupt the memorial service. [The WBC, which in recent years has frequently staged protests at military funerals, is not affiliated with – and, in fact, has been denounced by – the Baptist World Alliance and the Southern Baptist Convention.]

Challenge 2 – Traffic Management. In addition to the security challenge, there was a complex traffic-management challenge that also had to be addressed because: (a) So many active-duty attendees would have to be ferried by bus from two different bases in the area; (b) Safe passage would be required for the Patriot Guard escort and the dignitary motorcades; and (c) Protection would be needed for the 1,000 sailors from the nuclear-powered aircraft carrier USS Theodore Roosevelt who would be “manning the rails” during the ceremony. All of these moving parts had to be planned for and managed. An additional complication was the fact that the security professionals assigned would at the same time be busy facilitating ingress and egress throughout the day to an entirely unrelated and previously planned convention on the other side of the Convention Center. In addition to the obvious security and traffic challenges, there was also an obligation to take whatever steps would be needed to ensure the proper reverence and respect that is expected by attendees at any event honoring those who have died for their country.

Challenge 3 – Time. Although planning for most major special events generally begins many months – and sometimes years – in advance, the planning cycle for this particular event was less than 10 days. In consultation with Chief of Police James Cervera, Deputy Chief Tony Zucaro (head of the Operations Division) determined that a unified command structure was to be employed. Captain Michael J. Glendon (Commanding Officer of Special Operations) wasentified as the VBPD Incident Commander (IC) and worked in close cooperation with all of the many groups and organizations involved. The VBPD IC also would serve as the lead official for decisions on perimeter security, the protection of protestors, the flow of traffic, and the enforcement of both local and Virginia laws.

The Coordinating Task: National Agencies, Bomb Squads & K9 Units 

The Naval Criminal Investigative Service (NCIS) collaborated with the VBPD motorcycle unit to coordinate the planning for the protective details escorting the visiting dignitaries. The JTTF provided intelligence and situational awareness throughout the planning cycle – and would assume jurisdictional authority if it was determined that there might be a threat to national-security interests. In addition: (a) The Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI), the NCIS, and the VBPD all provided plain-clothes personnel experienced in and dedicated to real-time intelligence gathering and the provision of inner-perimeter security; and (b) Local fire and emergency medical services (EMS) agencies collaborated during the planning phase to ensure that there would be an adequate response capability in place to deal with heat emergencies, fire alarms, actual fires, or medical needs.

In addition to planning the catering, the seating, and numerous other details associated with any major and relatively large event, the staff at the Convention Center collaborated with Virginia Beach public school officials to ensure that magnetometers would be in place to scan all attendees for weapons. The Bomb and K9 squads of several regional agencies collaborated on a plan to scan and secure the very large perimeter of ground surrounding the event. Virginia Beach City Attorney Mark D. Stiles supported the declaration of a security perimeter that extended around the venue and even into a neighboring park. The same declaration authorized the exclusion of vagrants and kept pedestrians from remaining in or accessing the park or surrounding sidewalks during the ceremonies.

In addition: (a) The VBPD Special Weapons And Tactics (SWAT) team collaborated with FBI tactical resources to provide a critical-incident response capability; (b) A VBPD Mounted Team was assigned to and planned for various perimeter-security and crowd-management contingencies; (c) The VBPD air unit created and managed an overhead surveillance and security plan; and (d) The Naval Region Mid-Atlantic command assigned a significant number of security personnel to the planning phase so that various perimeter and traffic posts could be manned, thus facilitating the ingress and egress of attendees.

The End Result: No Bad News Is Very Good News 

All of these various and disparate elements were closely coordinated, under the ICS umbrella, with the senior officials in charge – who remained in daily contact with one another prior to the event to ensure that the plan was well understood and that all of the numerous units and hundreds of personnel involved were well prepared for the anticipated contingencies.

On 25 August 2011, more than 5,000 persons attended the memorial service – and no major problems were experienced. In short, the largest security/exclusion zone operation ever associated with a Virginia Beach special event was planned for and managed successfully. Neither the WBC nor any other group bent on disruption showed up. No suspicious devices were discovered. The only medical emergencies that occurred were relatively minor and all, or almost all, were heat-related. Finally, the anticipated heavy traffic flow was effectively managed, with very few and only minimal delays experienced.

There was also another significant benefit: The lessons learned during the planning and execution phases of the memorial ceremonies will lay the groundwork for future special events of similar or even greater magnitude. The high level of dedication, professionalism, and cooperation demonstrated by all of the agencies participating, and by all members of the NSW, contributed immensely to the successful implementation of a “new and improved” plan for special events in Virginia Beach.

David Squires

Police Lieutenant David Squires, who has been a member of the Virginia Beach Police Department for the past 20 years, holds both a bachelor’s degree in Economics from the College of William & Mary and a master’s degree in Security Studies from the U.S. Naval Postgraduate School. He is currently assigned to Special Operations in the Police Department. Throughout his career, he has served in narcotics, intelligence, internal affairs, community policing, and resort area patrol assignments. He has a long and distinguished background in special event planning and critical incident management – earned through experience coordinating the police planning for and operations during numerous marathons, concerts, and other high-profile events.



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