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From celebrations to crises: A guide to PACE planning for special event response

Highlighting the importance of PACE planning in addressing potential security threats, crowd management issues and emergency responses for large gatherings

Chiefs Parade Shooting Stand Your Ground

Police clear the area following a shooting at the Kansas City Chiefs NFL football Super Bowl celebration in Kansas City, Mo., Wednesday, Feb. 14, 2024. The man accused of firing the first shots at the Kansas City Chiefs Super Bowl rally told authorities he felt threatened, while a second man said he pulled the trigger because someone was shooting at him, according to court documents.

Reed Hoffmann/AP

The shooting at the Kansas City Chiefs’ Super Bowl parade brought to mind a phrase I’ve uttered numerous times throughout my career: “Hope for the best, plan for the worst.” This saying is attributed to Lee Child, the author of the Jack Reacher book series. I believe there have been various iterations of this phrase. It’s a sentiment I’ve heard repeatedly among my colleagues and friends in emergency management and among those who plan law enforcement response to major events and incidents. The phrase succinctly captures a pragmatic and comprehensive approach to preparing for potential crises or disasters.

While it underscores the importance of a positive outlook toward the future, it cautions against relying solely on optimism for our readiness. Planning for the worst forms the essence of emergency management. It signifies that, despite our hopes for favorable outcomes, organizations, governments, and individuals must thoroughly plan and prepare for the most severe scenarios. Through such planning, our goal is to mitigate the impact of disasters via preparedness, response, recovery and mitigation strategies. This all-encompassing approach ensures that, should the worst occur, its effects can be managed as effectively as possible, potentially saving lives, minimizing economic losses, and expediting recovery efforts.

I have previously written about the importance of incorporating a PACE plan alongside an event operations plan when preparing for planned events, such as mass gatherings. A PACE plan, which stands for Primary, Alternative, Contingency and Emergency, enables an event’s plan to be adaptable — either expanded or contracted — based on various factors. These factors include weather conditions, crowd sizes, technological and vehicle malfunctions, and both natural and man-made disasters, including incidents of crime or terrorism. This approach ensures a comprehensive level of preparedness, allowing event organizers to swiftly respond to a wide array of potential challenges and ensure the safety and smooth operation of the events.

Besides contingencies for weather and mechanical breakdowns, a PACE plan for special event response should also consider the possibility of:

Attendance beyond the capacity

When preparing for events, all stakeholders must take into account not only the nature and historical significance of the event but also weather conditions and the specific location where it will be held. It’s crucial to develop a plan that allows for the expansion of the event area in cases where attendance exceeds expectations. This necessitates careful consideration of past similar events and a thorough understanding of the geographical area, including highways, roadways, waterways and other potential barriers to expansion.

In scenarios where attendance significantly surpasses capacity, leading to the involvement of multiple agencies, it is advisable to activate the city’s Emergency Operations Center (EOC). The EOC plays a pivotal role in ensuring comprehensive Command, Control, and Communications (C3) across all participating entities. Additionally, the establishment of a Real-Time Crime Center (RTCC) can significantly enhance situational awareness. The RTCC can monitor the event from a single location and provide real-time information to operational teams on the ground, thereby facilitating a coordinated and effective response to any issues that may arise, including those related to safety, security and crowd management.

Demonstrations and protests

In anticipation of the possibility of demonstrations or protests, maintaining good situational awareness and gathering accurate intelligence are critical. It’s important to consult with state and federal law enforcement intelligence partners to obtain the latest threat assessments. High-level dignitaries and attendees may be considered potential targets for protests. There have been instances in the past where traffic or parade routes were blocked as a means to gain media attention.

While planning for these contingencies, it’s essential to acknowledge the First Amendment rights of protesters, recognizing their right to free speech and assembly. However, this acknowledgment goes hand in hand with understanding the legal framework regarding “time, place and manner” restrictions, which allow for the regulation of protests to prevent unwarranted and illegal acts. This balance ensures that while individuals can exercise their rights to protest, it does not unduly disrupt the event or lead to unlawful behavior, ensuring the safety and security of all participants.

Criminal activity

In addressing personal and property crime considerations for event safety, it’s essential to extend focus beyond the event location to include transit routes leading to and from the venue. Crowded pedestrian areas are particularly vulnerable to a range of criminal activities, including pickpocketing, robbery, sexual assault, drunken behavior, auto burglaries, retail theft, and other forms of theft. To combat these issues effectively, specialized units can be deployed among the crowds, specifically trained and on high alert for such activities.

Gang units, in collaboration with parole and probation officers, play a critical role in monitoring for the presence of active members of identified gangs, opposing gang members, and individuals with outstanding warrants. This proactive approach is vital in preventing gang-related violence and ensuring the safety of event goers.

The security plan should clearly outline protocols for the identification, arrest, and removal of individuals engaging in criminal activities. A strategic mix of plainclothes and uniformed officers can be highly effective, serving both as a means of detection and as a deterrent to criminal behavior. Plainclothes officers can blend in with the crowd to spot unlawful activities without drawing attention, while uniformed officers provide a visible security presence that can deter potential offenders. This comprehensive approach to event security ensures a safer environment for everyone involved, allowing attendees to enjoy the event with peace of mind.

Active shooter(s)

EMS and fire department emergency services personnel should be strategically positioned around the event perimeter, ensuring readiness for both vehicle and foot responses in case of an emergency. Leveraging technology can significantly enhance situational awareness and response times. The deployment of temporary pole cameras or viewing platforms, Automated License Plate Readers (ALPRs), drones, and integrating video feeds from the area with advanced detection technologies like ZeroEyes, which specializes in detecting images of firearms, and SoundThinking (formerly known as ShotSpotter), which can provide immediate alerts for firearms and shots fired in real-time, are pivotal. These technologies can pinpoint exact locations for response teams on the ground, facilitating a swift and coordinated reaction through the EOC or RTCC.

Upon receiving alerts from technologies like ZeroEyes or SoundThinking, law enforcement teams can be promptly directed to the exact location of the shooting incident, equipped with information and descriptions of the shooter(s). This advanced preparation and technological integration enable a rapid and informed response, crucial for effectively neutralizing threats and ensuring public safety during large-scale events.

Mass casualty incident

In the event of an incident, the importance of pre-incident planning cannot be overstated. Depending on the nature of the cause, such as a Chemical, Biological, Radiological, Nuclear, or Explosive (CBRNE) event, most attendees will likely have begun to self-evacuate. In certain scenarios, the EOC or RTCC may make the decision to issue shelter-in-place orders or provide other directives to manage the crowd effectively.

EMS teams would be instructed to proceed to designated ambulatory casualty collection points for efficient triage and treatment of the injured. Meanwhile, law enforcement teams would be tasked with addressing and neutralizing any active threats to ensure the safety of the event participants.

The EOC/RTCC plays a pivotal role in determining the appropriate field response, whether it involves law enforcement, fire services, hazardous materials (hazmat) teams, or health departments, to address the specific nature of the incident. The locations for emergency response and transport, including ingress and egress routes, staging areas, casualty collection points, areas for media briefings, and reunification sites for families and individuals, are identified during the planning stage. This comprehensive planning ensures that all responses are coordinated and effective, minimizing confusion and maximizing the efficiency of emergency services in managing the situation.

In summary, a well-thought-out plan for a civic celebratory event is crucial should still be complemented by a robust PACE (Primary, Alternative, Contingency, and Emergency) plan to adequately respond to a wide range of possibilities. However, the mere existence of these plans is not enough. They must be rigorously trained on and exercised among all multidisciplinary responders across all levels — from executive leadership and command and communications centers to field responders — to ensure their effectiveness. This comprehensive approach to planning, training, and execution ensures that when faced with an emergency, all involved parties can respond efficiently and effectively, minimizing risks and maximizing safety for all participants.

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James Dudley is a 32-year veteran of the San Francisco Police Department where he retired as deputy chief of the Patrol Bureau. He has served as the DC of Special Operations and Liaison to the Department of Emergency Management where he served as Event and Incident Commander for a variety of incidents, operations and emergencies. He has a Master’s degree in Criminology and Social Ecology from the University of California at Irvine. He is currently a member of the Criminal Justice faculty at San Francisco State University, consults on organizational assessments for LE agencies and hosts the Policing Matters podcast for Police1.