May 29, 2016

Partly sunny

Security experts fret over college football stadium safety

 HATTIESBURG, Miss. — After more than a decade in counterterrorism, Jim McGee can no longer relax and enjoy watching a sports event.
The fans look like potential victims of terrorism to the former FBI agent turned college instructor. The players are possible targets and the security gaps are easy to detect.
“It’s always in the back of my mind, even when I’m watching them on TV,” McGee said. “You’re kind of looking at things. The thing is if I can sit there or any spectator can sit there, and think, ‘Hmmm, that doesn’t look right,’ that’s probably a little bit of a risk there.”
It was long McGee’s job to worry about security at stadiums and arenas. Now, as part of the University of Southern Mississippi’s Center for Spectator Sports Security Management, it’s his job to teach others the concerns that face event managers in the post-9/11 era.
While professional leagues and NASCAR appear to be taking security seriously, officials worry enough isn’t being done at college sports events.
Those contacted about the issue believe it’s only a matter of time before another domestic or international terrorist attack targets a sports event. This time of year is especially worrisome because of all the high-profile games during bowl season.
Bill Flynn, head of Homeland Security’s protective security coordination division, said stadiums and arenas are “a concern, something that we want to pay attention to. Why? Because we’ve seen attacks overseas in resorts, hotels and arenas, so obviously while al-Qaida and the terrorists have attempted to hit hard targets like refineries, soft targets and commercial facilities become more of a target of opportunity.”
U.S. Rep. Bennie Thompson, D-Miss., chairman of the House Homeland Security Committee, said basic procedures followed by professional sports security managers aren’t followed by all colleges, leaving vulnerable those who cut corners because of cost or other reasons.
“What we found is that there’s a need for athletic administrators, campus police, emergency medical service, for all those people to have training,” Thompson said.
The Southern Miss program is beginning to fill that need. The security management program, created in October 2005, is believed to be the only program of its kind in the nation and is offered as part of the sports management master’s degree program. The school recently won a $3.5 million grant from the Department of Homeland Security to conduct 95 training seminars around the nation to train and certify security professionals.
The program’s director, Lou Marciani, said there are significant research opportunities for students in the program, and qualified security professionals are in demand across the country. The school also can help certify retiring federal agents and military personnel for second-career security jobs in the private sector.
Marciani said the center’s research quickly showed that college sports events were among the most vulnerable, with hundreds of venues, varying security emphasis and a high emotional impact. More than 48 million people attend at least one NCAA football game a season, offering an easy target.
Researchers discovered most schools had never conducted an emergency evacuation drill or a threat assessment.
By far the largest variable, however, was training. Law enforcement and private security guards aren’t the only employees in need of training for a venue to be safe. Everyone from ticket takers and ushers to the people approving credentials must be vigilant.
“In our lifetime you saw Boy Scouts and Girl Scouts being ushers,” Marciani said. “The new usher is the first responder. Big difference, huh? Sixty-two percent of NCAA schools use an outsource company to manage their security. So the question is, ‘Who are these people coming in to manage their security?”‘
NCAA officials turned down repeated requests to discuss the issue, even in the broadest terms.