Assessing Risk and Preparing for Civil Unrest in 2021

Security experts share their tips for enhancing event safety during protests. 

While Covid-19 risk assessment continues to dominate safety preparation for in-person events, worries over civil unrest are increasingly on the minds of U.S.-based planners. In Northstar Meetings Group's most recent PULSE Survey, nearly 40 percent of respondents said that they were concerned or extremely concerned about risks associated with civil unrest, crime and similar issues. 

"I'm worried that people will be wary of in-person gatherings of any size for a very long time, both due to Covid and civil unrest," wrote one respondent.

"Covid is only one issue we are dealing with right now," said another. "The potential of violence or disruption from radicalized groups is quickly becoming every bit as significant and has the potential to further harm the meetings industry."

And another: "Even after Covid, political division will be strong and will continue, as we have no vaccine for it."

Following the Jan. 6 raid on the U.S. Capitol and its aftermath, event planners have been more carefully considering the risks such a combustible political environment could present to their own gatherings. 

"People just feel a general level of unease and nervousness right now," says David Kelly, managing director of security consulting services for T&M USA, which handles risk assessment and security for large-scale corporate, sporting and entertainment events. "They're more concerned about their security and having a good crisis plan in place. As events start happening again, you're going to hear that more."

Kelly is not alone in this observation. We spoke with a number of event security experts who discussed how concerns around civil unrest are reshaping security priorities as planners prepare for the return of in-person meetings, and how event organizers can be better prepared.

Increase Alertness

IAVM's Mark Herrera will be the keynote speaker at Northstar Meetings Group's Interact: Back to Booking digital event taking place on Tuesday, Feb. 23. He will be speaking on the topic "Risk Management Today: Basic Training for Meeting and Event Managers." Register here.

Mark Herrera, director of education for the International Association of Venue Managers, oversees security training related to protecting a wide range of commercial venues, including convention centers, stadiums, performance halls and more. During the organization's town hall discussions and in other interactions with members, Herrera has seen a growing demand for guidance related to security issues in the aftermath of the Jan. 6 attack.

"If there's an occurrence where there was a massive attack of any type — whether it's through civil unrest, whether it's vehicle-borne or an improvised explosive device — anytime you have a facility that's been affected, it has a trigger effect on all the other venues and organizations," says Herrera. 

When it comes to security threats, he adds that "domestic violent extremists" are getting more attention from him and his members than in previous years. 

Herrera advises that venue managers should ideally survey for threats within a 30- to 35-mile radius around their facilities in advance of the event, but he acknowledges that security departments may by stretched thin these days. "In the midst of this pandemic, we're very lean within our security postures — there's been a lot of furloughs, a lot of layoffs," he says, noting that venues could be particularly vulnerable.

Mark Herrera, director of education for the International Association of Venue Managers
Mark Herrera, director of education for the International Association of Venue Managers

Herrera gets the latest information on these risks in part through his work on the Department of Homeland Security's Cybersecurity & Infrastructure Security Agency, as well as its Commercial Facilities Subsector Council, which he chairs. He shares the information with IAVM members via direct emails and biweekly town halls, organized by venue types, while IAVM's Venue Safety and Security Committee draws on the info to develop training programs and guidelines to put into practice over the long term.

"These emergency action plans have to be not only reviewed, but they need to be practiced on a regular basis," says Herrera, who worked in law enforcement for more than two decades prior to joining IAVM. His experience includes stints as detective for the Gang and Narcotics unit in Hobbs, Texas, as a sergeant for the S.W.A.T. team and as a trainer for DHS. "If everybody follows those protocols," he adds, "they're able to communicate this information in the midst of crisis and things flow smoothly; but if politics attaches itself to your physical security measures, it weakens your organization and your environment." 

Collect Intelligence and Understand Context

For Edward T. Cannon, vice president of security consulting services for T&M USA, protests and demonstrations have long been viewed as a standard part of any threat assessment and were typically low-risk. But now he says civil unrest of all kinds has "a higher level of significance. Unfortunately, I don't think anybody believes that January 6 was the end," he notes.

Following the Capitol riot, state capitols and government buildings were alerted to tighten their security in the lead up to inauguration day, and Cannon expects an elevated level of caution will continue to be practiced at these venues.

"Do you need to be more cautious if you are in a state capital or in proximity to government buildings? I think the answer is 'yes,'" says Cannon. 

But he and T&M's David Kelly emphasize that this is just one aspect of an event that planners should consider when assessing whether civil unrest or even peaceful protests could potentially create disruptions. 

"There are deeper levels to go to really understand when your event might be intentionally targeted by protestors or subject to some sort of a demonstration," says Kelly. "Are any of the sponsors or speakers controversial? Is the theme or industry controversial? These are questions that corporate America is keenly aware of right now and event planners need to be, too — it's a politically sensitive time right now."

Edward T. Cannon, vice president of security consulting services for T&M USA
Edward T. Cannon, vice president of security consulting services for T&M USA

Cannon gives the example of a corporate client that hosted a fundraiser for a political candidate that attracted a peaceful demonstration. 

"Our security analysts were monitoring social media and were able to contact our security agents that were providing security at this event, who then share that intelligence with the police to let them know, 'Hey, there are six buses coming, they're going to arrive at 14:00 and stage at this location,'" says Cannon. "That was all picked up from open-source communication."

For a particular event, T&M will do deeper dives into the specific security issues that affect that venue, location or event. They pull from online sources as well as assessments and bulletins from NYPD Shield, DHS and the FBI, and private intelligence organizations that provide information in as close to real time as possible. 

"The real value is that we know our clients," says Cannon. "We see an alert and we understand which of our clients this may have an impact on."

Dan Donovan, founder and managing partner of security firm Stratoscope
Dan Donovan, founder and managing partner of security firm Stratoscope

Dan Donovan, founder and managing partner of security firm Stratoscope, echoes the value of this approach. 

"We have to always be prepared, first for protestors and secondly for the possibility that these protestors may include individuals with the intent to do damage or inflict harm," says Donovan, who has personally assisted with the security of such high-profile events as Amazon's AWS re:invent conference, Google Next and the last six Salesforce Dreamforce conferences — not to mention seven Olympic games, 12 Super Bowls and four NBA All Star weekends. "We've seen protestors at a number of events that we've been involved with and have even seen them breach perimeters. How do we mitigate risk and what's the likelihood of it happening at a business event? The answer is really all based on intel."

Intelligence is critical in determining what risks need to be considered and which risks need additional resources dedicated to mitigating them, Donovan adds. 

Create a Comprehensive Assessment

Security experts urge planners to keep a keen eye out for potential or escalating risks in the days or months leading up to a gathering.

"Monitoring social media should be part of your security prep — what kind of chatter is going on leading up to an event and in real time," says Cannon. "What became clear in Washington [on Jan. 6] was that while intelligence may have been collected that could have given a heads up of what was going to happen at the Capitol, it either wasn't shared effectively or wasn't sent up to the right level." 

This kind of review is part of a comprehensive "all-hazards written risk assessment," as Cannon calls it, which covers all major issues that could potentially surface and ensures there are protocols in place should a crisis break out.

Planners must be careful not to only focus on the last crisis and overlook the myriad potential threats an event can face. A major weakness in many planners' risk-assessment plans is that they fail to update it regularly, adds Kelly.

"Often what gets done is, 'Hey, pull out the folder from last year and change the dates,'" says Kelly. "That really doesn't cut it."

David Kelly, managing director of security consulting services for T&M USA
David Kelly, managing director of security consulting services for T&M USA

A well-crafted threat risk assessment is going to look at a variety of categories — natural threats (such as wildfires or hurricanes), accidents (such as a truck spilling hazardous materials) and intentional acts (active shooters, thefts). It considers the type of facility, participants and potential negative impact of various scenarios in terms of economic impact, reputational damage to the organization and even injuries or casualties.

From there, the planner or their crisis-management advisor works out the steps that would be taken should any of these events transpire, clarifying who would do what and ensuring there is enough security staff to handle all variety of these issues. 

For example, T&M handled the security for the 2020 CONEXPO-CON/AGG construction-industry trade show, which took place March 10–14 last year, just as the threat of Covid-19 to the U.S. was becoming clear. Rapid changes to the program were required: setting up hand-sanitizing stations, placing "ambassadors" at doorways to encourage social distancing and ensure doors were kept open, and even ending the event a day early as concerns mounted. The T&M team facilitated that by having strong communication with the various security entities that they had explicitly defined long before the event began.

"You know in advance that this person's going to deal with operations, this person's going to deal with logistics, this is your fire department contact, local police contact, FBI," says Kelly. "You have all those in place and then you conduct tabletop exercises where you test the plan and that's where you find out if there's a communications gap somewhere."

From their command center in the convention center's boardroom, the T&M team was able to quickly check in or advise on the course of action for the event planners, Las Vegas Metro PD, the county fire department, representatives of the event venue and more.

Execute When it Counts

Often the effectiveness of a security plan comes down to the choices made by individuals on the ground, in the moment.

"Your number-one asset is your front-line staff," says IAVM's Mark Herrera. 

This does refers not only to the dedicated security team at a venue; it could also include those assisting at the registration desk, the people greeting attendees as they arrive or anyone else helping to run the event as it's happening. When all of these people have been prepped to be on the lookout for anything suspicious and know how best to respond, it greatly increases the likelihood that any crisis will be averted or defused. 

All staff should receive some kind of training in basic crisis aversion, Herrera advises. Let's say a person is seen approaching the convention center on a hot day wearing a heavy jacket.

"We could rely on those physical security measures of the building," Herrera says, "or we can intercept the potential threat outside with our front-line teams. Before the person even makes it to the front door, we've already mitigated it."

In this case, a front-line staff member could welcome the suspiciously dressed person in a friendly manner, perhaps asking them if they'd like a bottle of water, noting that they look hot and asking if there's a reason they're all bundled up. It's what Herrera calls "risk mitigation through guest service interjection." In most cases, the person will offer an explanation that reveals they aren't a threat, perhaps removing the jacket or explaining why they're dressed that way. 

"If I'm wrong in my risk assessment, I just showed you how much I care about you by offering you a bottle of water," Herrara explains. If the guest becomes hostile, the front-line staff member can seek ways to deescalate or get additional help; but the interaction should always begin with empathy, especially in this pandemic age.

That approach, multiplied across multiple checkpoints throughout the building, or "layers" as Herrera calls them, ensures that concerning behavior can be identified quickly and hopefully mitigated. 

"These emergency action plans have to be reviewed and then practiced on a regular basis," says Herrera. "If everybody follows those protocols, they're able to communicate even in the midst of crisis — and things flow very, very smoothly."