Long After 9/11, Stadiums Playing Defense
Former FBI agent Jim McGee will visit Texas A&M University starting today for an audit of its stadium security planning.
"This was already scheduled, but the timing is good," said McGee, programming director for the Center for Spectator Sports Security Management at the University of Southern Mississippi.
Federal counterterrorism officials issued a bulletin to police departments across the country this week notifying them that sports stadiums, entertainment centers and hotels remain possible targets of terrorist attacks.
The bulletin, issued following the arrests of three suspects in an alleged terror plot stretching from New York to Denver, was circulated to "increase awareness," said Sean Smith, a spokesman for the U.S. Department of Homeland Security. He said authorities do not know the timing or intended target.
Homeland Security identifies stadiums and arenas as key assets in the national infrastructure, which it defines as potential targets of terrorism. That's because they provide opportunities for mass casualties, economic disruption and global news media coverage, McGee said.
Officials from Southern Miss spent the summer traveling across the country giving 40 two-day seminars, a sort of summer school for stadium safety.
Southern Miss received a $3.4 million grant from Homeland Security to design and deliver the curriculum for this comprehensive stadium security course. The goal is to give 80 workshops for roughly 5,000 trainees from 1,000 schools over this past summer and next.
WorldStadiums.com counts 1,804 sports facilities across the USA, in big cities and small towns, holding hundreds to more than 100,000 spectators.
Pro leagues and many colleges have "hardened their facilities" - security-speak for safety improvements - since the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, McGee said. "But a lot of (other) colleges are behind the curve. That's why we're spreading the message."
Audits of Vanderbilt, Penn State, Tennessee and Army are expected soon, McGee said.
How safe are the estimated 49 million fans attending college football games this season?
"Safer than they used to be," said Lou Marciani, director of the Southern Miss center. "We have a grave responsibility to protect the assets, especially the human assets, on our campuses."
Mike Caruso talked to athletics administrators and safety personnel from a dozen colleges at one of the center's seminars this summer, this one at M&T Bank Stadium in Baltimore.
"I think all of you understand the threat is real," he said, "or you wouldn't be here."
Caruso, associate athletics director for events and game operations at Texas A&M, has as many as 2,000 people working for him at football games, taking tickets, selling soda and directing cars.
"How many of them are on our security team?" Caruso asked, pausing for dramatic effect. "All of them. They all need to have their eyes and ears open."
The workshop advises schools to check the backgrounds of stadium workers. Those who pass muster - ushers, parking attendants, gate security - should then be trained on what to look for in terms of security risks, such as unusually bulky clothing or vehicles approaching at high speed.
Gate security workers who search fans before they walk into a stadium aren't just looking for flasks. They are making sure no weapons or explosives get in.
"Do you know how many college students have backpacks?" Caruso asked. "All of them." But none, he said, should be allowed to bring one into a football game.
Caruso cited Joel Henry Hinrichs III, a University of Oklahoma engineering student who blew himself up with a 3-pound backpack bomb 200 yards from OU's 84,000-seat stadium during the second quarter of a 2005 game against Kansas State.
The FBI concluded months later that Hinrichs was not a terrorist, in the sense that they found he had no political or social motive to kill others. Agents also found no evidence that Hinrichs tried to enter the stadium. Nor did he have a ticket.
But they could not rule out that the bomb went off prematurely and perhaps he hoped to kill others in the crush of people leaving the game a couple of hours later.