Special Events Challenges - A Sesquicentennial Example

Planned events provide an opportunity for incident management teams to practice their trade without the same degree of urgency or stress generally associated with sudden unexpected incidents. However, even during planned or scheduled events, there are numerous challenges that must be confronted and solutions to those challenges that must be developed. One of the most valuable reasons for planning an event, in fact, is to prevent emergency incidents of any type from actually occurring before or during such events.

Among the most common challenges that cannot be thoroughly planned in advance are weather and geographical variables, the number of participants expected, and the security measures that must be developed and practiced. The National Weather Service has significantly refined its own longer-range forecasting for potentially severe weather conditions, but daily weather forecasts still mention the numerous variables that also must be covered. Although information from past events and the nature of the event itself can help in predicting the types and numbers of participants expected to attend, some events will attract individuals or groups seeking to protest the event itself or to draw attention to their own causes – which might have nothing at all in common with the event at which the protest occurs. Largely for that reason, the provisions planned and implemented for event security must go well beyond fundamental event-admission and activities-management responsibilities.

One special event that necessarily included greater attention on not only weather conditions but also new security considerations was the Sesquicentennial (150th anniversary) Reenactment of the Battle of First Manassas, which ran from 18 July through 24 July 2011. The principal reenactment activities for the Sesquicentennial were held on 21 and 22 July. However, there were a host of other public memorials and recognition activities scheduled both before and after those dates. Even with numerous lessons learned from previous special events of the same type, the Manassas Sesquicentennial posed some unique challenges.

Weather, Geographic & Population Complications

To begin with, Virginia’s summer is typically hot and humid – with temperatures often ranging to the upper 80s or low 90s, and the humidity index even higher (100 degrees or more). Such stressful conditions are frequently compounded by sudden localized thunderstorms, which in that area usually start early in the afternoon and continue into the evening. Some of the storms are capable of reaching severe conditions – considerably intensified by frequent and intense lightning and with wind gusts in excess of 60 miles per hour. When there is heavy rainfall as well, flash flooding also can occur, but the sudden onset of such storms and their potential severity are the most notable concerns for event managers and security personnel.

The largely preserved rural condition of the Manassas area’s annual commemoration site is today somewhat of an anomaly because most of the surroundings are now, for all practical purposes, considered to be outer suburbs of the greater Washington, D.C., metropolitan area. Although two 4-6 lane commuter routes – an east-west interstate highway (I-66) and a north-south U.S. highway (US-29, also known as Lee Highway) – and several other major highways serve the region, most of the local roads closer to the event site are more narrow and more difficult to navigate, even at lower speeds. The two-lane “country” roads are a challenge for moving large volumes of traffic, and nearly impossible for the transportation of heavy equipment, staging, and other outsized cargo and supplies. Hence, although access to the area is good, ingress and egress travel to the site during the Sesquicentennial commemoration poses significant challenges for event planners.

Because National Park Service (NPS) regulations prohibit most events from taking place on NPS property, all of the reenactment proceedings and many of the preliminary and associated gatherings took place on the private property surrounding and adjoining the public park area. However, NPS assumed responsibility for a number of the public tributes and memorials. Thus, the event was not only multi-faceted but also involved the use of and activities within a broad spectrum of federal, state, and local properties.

For the 2011 event, planners projected the following: attendance ranging anywhere from 150,000 to 300,000 visitors; several thousand re-enactors; a relatively large number of livestock (horses, primarily – most of them owned and brought by the re-enactors); and numerous local as well as national politicians and other dignitaries scheduled to deliver speeches and memorial addresses during the event. In addition to the concerns posed by what could be a rapid onset of severe weather, the site of the activities presented another major challenge: approximately 3,000 acres of combined national park property, private property, and a state forest tract, all of which led to and required numerous divisions of authority, based primarily on the land owners involved.

Shade for the Horses, Heavy Wool for the Fighting Men

Largely because of the separate land ownerships – and the associated regulations under which each of the political entities represented were required to execute their individual responsibilities – the planning process was not “unified.” Although separate action plans were ultimately agreed upon and promulgated, the separate command groups also developed a number of helpful information-exchange protocols to maintain a common situational awareness.

The reenactment itself presented several major planning challenges, particularly those related to safety and security. One prominent example: The Civil War re-enactor uniforms were made of the same type of wool fabric – heavy, hot, and very cumbersome – worn by the original soldiers. Virtually every other tangible item worn or used by the combatants on both sides of the epic battle was replicated: combat equipment; tools; canvas tents; campfires; and even the hand carts used to carry tents, blankets, and personal gear.

However, even though most of the re-enactors observed sound personal safety and protective precautions – such as maintaining adequate hydration and seeking shade when necessary – event planners still were concerned about the potential for heat-related casualties. Largely for that reason, special plans were made for the rapid deployment of medical support personnel using four-wheel quick-response equipment and other EMS support resources. Because of concern for the well-being of the horses used in the mock battles, state forest authorities permitted the re-enactors to tether their horses in the shade of the adjoining Conway-Robinson State Forest when not engaged in the reenactment activities.

Unfortunately, this raised another complication. Because of state forest regulations, the re-enactors could not set up camp with their horses and thus had to stay on the adjoining private property. This concern presented a security issue for the Virginia Department of Forestry and necessitated daily patrols by the department’s personnel to prevent establishment of campsites on the forest property.

Horses, Soft Perimeters & Other Security Concerns

Security in general was a significant challenge for all of the event management personnel. There were three different “command” elements with divergent authorities and responsibilities – all using adjoining property with no “hard perimeters.” It was necessary for the federal, state, and local event managers to coordinate closely to ensure safety and security for the event. According to Zeph Cunningham, who served as a mentor for several incident command personnel responsible for ensuring that all NPS regulations were followed, one of the most serious challenges was the need to encourage and coordinate intelligence sharing among the key personnel.

The general concerns were threefold. First, the on-scene authorities were working with what was called a “soft perimeter.” As such, there were no formal distinctions between the federal, state, or private land. In addition, there was no system by which visitors were admitted to or contained within specific areas of the entire site.

Second, access control was minimal and the NPS authorities had no way of assessing visitors’ interests or intent. Usually, when visitors enter a national park or monument site, the parking or admission process provides officials a quick way to assess the visitors’ motives for being there. When this security process does not exist or is suspended, the customary protective measures cannot be employed. Therefore, Cunningham was concerned that the event could pose both safety and security issues beyond the customary procedures followed by the event management teams.

Third, his concerns also reflected the current realities of both timing and politics because the commemoration was taking place during a politically charged atmosphere – at a time in which major public events have become an almost irresistible magnet for terrorists, political and ideological protestors, and advocates for or against various causes. Many national as well as state dignitaries and politicians were scheduled for presentations, so the security concerns included uncertainty about who might arrive without prior notifications and/or require extra security measures. Moreover, if groups or individuals attended with the intent to disrupt the event, additional personnel would be needed to prevent confrontations.

For that reason, among others, the NPS established an operations branch – made up of both uniformed and plain-clothes personnel – dedicated to law enforcement and security. The uniformed personnel provided a clearly visible cadre, whereas the plain-clothes contingent maintained a constant undetected presence. In addition, the NPS event managers coordinated with the U.S. Park Police to supplement the ground resources already assigned with additional security resources. During all daytime activities, the Park Police provided aerial overhead support with at least one helicopter, which provided direct intelligence to the helicopter’s ground-based partners using real-time, live-stream video capabilities. The park police also provided highly trained and well-disciplined horse-mounted riders trained to mix easily with the crowds and provide direct safety and security resources.

To briefly summarize, major special events require the thorough and effective planning needed, well in advance, to prevent such events from evolving into sudden emergencies. Not incidentally, these same events also provide excellent real-life opportunities for incident management personnel and teams to apply and practice their training and skills under non-emergency conditions. In any case, whether the scenario is an unexpected incident or a carefully planned special event, the need for action planning has been validated and affirmed, and the National Incident Management System has provided a template by which both the incident- and event-management resources used continue to strengthen the nation’s overall homeland security efforts.

For additional information on: The National Incident Management System, visit http://www.fema.gov/pdf/emergency/nims/NIMS_core.pdf

Stephen Grainer

Stephen Grainer is the chief of IMS programs for the Virginia Department of Fire Programs (VDFP). He has served in Virginia fire and emergency services and emergency management coordination programs since 1972 – in assignments ranging from firefighter to chief officer. He also has been a curriculum developer, content evaluator, and instructor, and currently is developing and managing the VDFP programs needed to enable emergency responders and others to meet the National Incident Management System compliance requirements established by the federal government. From 2010 to 2012, he served as president of the All-Hazards Incident Management Teams Association.



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