Concerts vs. Airports: The Role and Effectiveness of Security Screening in Public Spaces

As previously posted I have a fair bit of experience with security screening in large facilities. With all the hype about airports these days it’s a good time to review the screening process and the role it plays in securing public areas. While one of the risks of security is believing expertise in one domain means expertise in all areas I believe large facilities/events and airports are related closely enough that we can apply the lessons of one to the other. In summary the security screening process is an effective tool at reducing risk in controlled spaces but is an extremely ineffective tool at completely eliminating risk. Screening only works when used in conjunction with other security controls both inside and outside of the area/facility being protected in a layered model. Good old defense in depth applies just as much to the physical world as the electronic one. Screening has improved a bit in U.S. airports since 9/11 but seems to be relied on too heavily and just can’t provide provide the level of protection either the public or politicians seem to demand from it. Continually increasing scrutiny during airport screenings beyond normal levels or increasing ID requirements will not significantly reduce the risk of a successful attack. At this point the best way to reduce the chances of a successful attack is to use additional security controls spread throughout the air travel system. I’ll talk a bit at how we screened at events, but if you just want to know about airports you might want to skip to the end. Back in the 90’s we used to perform physical searches on most of the people coming to concerts and sports events. Screening was just one of the many tools we used to ensure public safety at the event and it worked well for what we expected from it. Our screening met four goals: Check tickets or authenticate ID (depending on the event) Reduce unallowed items, like alcohol or cameras Reduce dangerous items like weapons/drugs Profile the person for entry (stopping extreme drunks, identifying problem children) (more after the jump…) Over the 10 years I worked event security I probably hand searched tens of thousands of people. It’s definitely not as fun as it sounds (and is surprisingly hard on the knees). We would vary screening considerably based on the risk profile of the event. A Barry Manilow show might get a quick visual check, while the latest skinhead gig would border a strip search. We didn’t use metal detectors due to a combination of cost and limited effectiveness. If all you’re looking for is metal they’re not too bad, but they suck for snagging boda bags full of Jack or vials of coke. One of the nice things about our events is that they were technically private- every ticket included a disclaimer that entry was solely at our discretion. You didn’t have to agree to a search, but we didn’t have to let you in. It seems harsh but some events can get a little rough. If we let everyone in with whatever they wanted things could get out of control in some very dangerous ways. Not for us, but for the people attending. I think it was a little worse back then, I rarely see the same kinds of brawls and injuries when I go to a show these days. Screening for any particular show was designed using a few factors: Size of the event Number of staff and experience level Nature of the event/audience Special requests from the performer or event sponsor (like no cameras) Budget A football game is huge- Folsom Stadium at the University of Colorado seats around 53,000 while the old Mile High stadium was just over 70,000. To cover an event of that size you need a large pool of cheap labor willing to work a single (or handful) of events screening at a dozen or more gates, with 5-15 screeners per gate. There’s no way to train an inconsistent group like that so we’d give them a quick briefing and place one or more experienced supervisors and regular staff with them. In this case the goal of screening is mostly to reduce the amount of booze making it’s way inside. When you convert a stadium to a concert venue that same facility might increase capacity by 30,000 while increasing the risk profile. Guns and Roses/Metallica was around 100,000. As much as we’d like otherwise we had to accept that screening at an event of that size would be only somewhat effective, so we beef up security in the event itself. We might run 50% more staff at a stadium concert than a football game. Smaller shows usually had smaller budgets. For shows of all sizes we had to try and match staff to get the attendees in as quickly as possible. Most people show up within an hour of a show starting, so we might have to hand search 3,000-10,000 people in that time and we’d balance staff and budget as best we could. For high risk shows we’d use the most experienced staff possible and rotate frequently to keep people fresh. There’s no manual for this stuff, but after working enough shows you get a good feel for the different kinds of crowds, when they’ll show up at the doors, what they’ll try to sneak in (everyone sneaks something in), and what to look for in terms of behavior and dress. You’d be surprised at which shows were the best or worst. Buffett concerts and Dead shows had plenty of fights and injuries, while speed metal shows were usually pretty tame aside from the mosh pits. But screening was only one small part of our security controls. Security typically stared in the parking lots and roads around the event, with a mix of identified staff and a few people in regular clothes. Out in the parking lots we’d look for problems, take care of the drunks, and give early verbal instructions

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Concerts vs. Airports- the Really Short Version

After posting Concerts vs. Airports: The Role and Effectiveness of Security Screening in Public Places I realized it was a tad long and I might bore some of you, so here’s the crib notes: For about ten years I worked, and eventually directed, security for large events like concerts and football games. There are some lessons we can apply to airline screening since both involve securing public spaces and large crowds: Screening is just one layer of security, but in airports it’s treated as practically the only layer. In concerts we relied more heavily on inside security to fill the gaps of screening. In concerts we used more behavioral profiling, earlier in the system. We never stopped profiling and watching once someone was inside. Technology is only good at catching certain things, and can’t catch everything. Increasing screening, but not the rest of security, will only piss people off and won’t significantly improve security. 80% or more of airport security seems to start and stop with screening. This might look good, but isn’t really secure. Computers suck at profiling and and are much more likely to catch a good guy than a bad guy. No security is perfect, and a determined and intelligent attacker could probably defeat most security where we allow public access, but by adding additional non-intrusive security controls we can rely less on screening and increase security while improving the flight experience. We need to build more layers into air transport security, not try and build a single really big wall. We have defense in depth at concerts and football games, why not airports? There’s more in the main post, but you get the idea. Share:

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