by Steven Hacker | September 01, 2016

As we are well aware, places of public assembly have increasingly fallen under attack. Innocent people have been murdered in schools, restaurants, shopping malls, churches, movie theaters and even workplaces throughout the world. No venue is exempt from a potential attack, nor are any of the 1.8 million trade shows, meetings, conventions and incentive-travel events that take place every year in the United States, which is why event planners must immediately take steps to ensure that the events they plan and produce are substantially safer than ever before. Event security must be at the top of the agenda. It is an ethical and potentially legal obligation.

Flanked as our nation is by two oceans, Americans have enjoyed a unique sense of isolation from wars that have repeatedly ravaged Europe and Asia. Our geography is, in large part, why so many of us believe we’ve been immune to the chaos for so long. But such thinking today is nothing more than a classic case of denial. Like all nations today, America is a target. Despite all of this, many event planners still contend that they need not alarm attendees with the installation of heightened security measures. This is absurd. Americans have reason to be fearful, and most attendees would be reassured by the presence of barriers—physical as well as electronic.

If you remain unconvinced, consider this: Several convention centers have recently acquired magnetometers and hand wands to be used at entry points. At the Los Angeles Convention Center, for example, event planners are offered the option of renting security equipment for a fee of about $400. This includes electronic equipment to process bags and packages and an operator to ensure proper use. You might actually have little choice in the matter. The LACC, like most other convention centers, reserves the right to determine if an event held at its facilities should be protected with such equipment; when deemed necessary, the center will install the equipment and charge the planner’s master account, even if the organizer had refused the service.

Even if the nature of your event doesn’t appear to make it a target for terrorism, other hateful acts can occur that would merit pause when considering that rented security system. Consider this: An individual comes to your event seeking revenge against a former spouse and kills several attendees and injures others. In the inevitable litigation that follows, a plaintiff’s attorney will ask an event planner if screening equipment that could have prevented the tragedy was offered—and if it was declined. Thus, failure to secure reasonably priced security measures, even if your event doesn’t seem to be a target, could prove to be financially ruinous.

You can be certain that many, if not most, convention centers will soon be making similar offers, if for no other reason than security screening is a new and potentially lucrative revenue source. Moreover, with many states permitting the open carry of guns, it’s something to consider. Most municipally or state-owned convention centers, which are the vast majority of centers, follow their state’s laws and regulations regarding the carry of handguns and long guns. However, most will permit planners to designate their events as “weapons-free,” addressing both concealed and open-carry weapons. But because every venue is free to adopt its own regulations, you cannot assume anything. Instead, your group must determine what will be and what will not be permitted in each venue you intend to use. This is why your association must adopt a written policy governing the carrying of weapons at events that you produce. If you haven’t yet adopted a written open-carry policy, this should be a discussion item at your next board of directors meeting.

These are just some of the reasons why event security must become a top priority. Everyone in your association must support its importance. Here are some steps you must take now:

1. Recognize that the current reality requires events be hardened.

We can’t protect our events from every potential attack—even police officials around the world admit there is no such thing as fail-safe security—and we don’t need to take event security to absurd levels. But we must take prudent and reasonable steps to secure the meetings we conduct and inform those who attend what to do in the unlikely event of an emergency. Some preparation is always better than none, so talk to attendees and staff about what steps to take in the event of an active on-site shooter, for example. Comprehensive and free resources are available to help you get this done.

2. Carry out a thorough systematic risk assessment before planning.

That risk assessment should address a number of key questions such as:

l What is the purpose of the event?

l Who will attend the event?

l How many will attend?

l What is the duration of the event?

l Where will it take place?

l What venues will be used?

Let’s say the event in question is a multi-day conference of international law enforcement officials, with the purpose of discussing ways to enhance security. Today, this would be considered a high-risk event. The larger the audience and the longer the event lasts, the greater the possible risk. Security that can be provided in most convention centers is likely to be far more comprehensive than what might be provided at an event conducted outdoors or at an off-site venue. Remember, most public spaces have been designed to permit easy access. These would all be questioned in the pre-planning stages.

Approach a systematic risk assessment in the same way you might approach a zero-based budget: Assume nothing and evaluate each potential risk completely. What is most important—and perhaps most difficult—will be to view your event not through the eyes of a planner (let’s face it, we are trained to focus on logistics) but as if you were a perpetrator intent on causing destruction and chaos. How would you attack your own event? What are its vulnerabilities?

Let’s also not forget that among the risks we face, terrorism or a lone-wolf shooter are just two. There are hazards of Mother Nature, such as fire, floods and tornadoes; there is also theft, robbery and assault; there are communicable diseases; and there are technology risks like cyber security and identity theft. In short, the list of perils events face is lengthy and growing longer.

3. Create a comprehensive security plan for each of your events.

Your security plan must integrate and align with that of the host facility (or any other venues that are part of your program). Happily, you will find that most convention centers already have sophisticated security plans in place. So begin by reviewing that of your prime venue and build upon it as needed.

Think about creating a three-ring binder with tabbed sections that identify all of the different categories of risk; one section for terrorism, one for active shooter, one for fire, one for floods, etc. These can all be brought up for discussion at a site visit designed exclusively for the review of safety and security planning. This should take place as soon as you have signed the contract for the venue. You will also want to integrate planning with the destination’s first responders. And note that at many venues, such as the Cobo Center in Detroit, which has extraordinary security plans in place—staff meet daily to ensure that every event in the facility is well served—event planners are designed as among the facility’s key first responders.

Your binder should also include a section that contains detailed information about every staff member and association official who will be on site. You will want to include each person’s name, date of birth, cell phone number and an emergency contact, including that contact’s cell phone number, and any notes about special medical issues.

That last piece of information is important; most planners probably don’t know who among their charges has Type I diabetes, a pacemaker, Addison’s disease or any number of other hidden issues that could spell the difference between survival and death in an emergency. Remember, in a serious crisis, people might be severely injured, unconscious or in shock. You will need to take account of all of your staff and association personnel immediately after an incident occurs and you can’t rely upon memory to recall who is and who is not on-site.

Event security is ever-evolving and requires our constant attention. Fortunately, industry organizations have begun programs designed to provide planners with new and comprehensive tools with which to harden our events. It comes not a moment too soon.