For the past 12 years, Rob Noonan has spent each day keeping people and information safe. As the chief of public safety and the chief information security officer at the Massachusetts Convention Center Authority (MCCA), Noonan has made potential threats a top priority. However, his worries were not often shared by event organizers. “Flash back 12 years ago, we might have gotten one or two clients each year where security concerns were a big issue,” Noonan told Convene. “It was often an afterthought. As a number of tragic situations have occurred worldwide, it has become clear that certain security practices needed to change.”
In 2016, shortly after the mass shooting at Pulse nightclub in Orlando, the American Medical Association called gun violence a public health crisis. Since that time, Noonan said he has seen a “seismic shift” in the way that organizers think about security issues. He added that tragic, “tough-to-fathom events” like the suicide bombing after an Ariana Grande concert in Manchester, England, and the mass shooting at the Route 91 Harvest Festival in Las Vegas have made convention centers, stadiums, and arenas rethink their security measures — including the Boston Convention and Exhibition Center (BCEC), one of the venues under Noonan’s watch.
On March 22, the MCCA simulated an active shooter exercise to test its readiness for a worst-case scenario. The simulation was called Operation Vanguard, and it included approximately 400 participants from every agency that would be involved in responding to such a crisis situation. Representatives from the Boston Police Department, Boston Fire Department, Boston Emergency Medical Services, Massport, Massachusetts State Police, Mass DOT, MBTA, the FBI, and the United States Secret Service were all on site for the event, which had been in the making for more than two years.
“Our team was able to source some grant funding to study the preparedness in our venue,” Noonan said. “Whatever we learned, we wanted to share those findings with all other venues in Massachusetts. We wanted it to benefit our peers and the entire events industry.”
The first stage of the operation, which took place in early 2018, was what Noonan calls a “table-top exercise.” It allowed all the stakeholders to walk through the scenario in a low-stress environment. For the discussion, Noonan focused on an annual gaming event with a peak attendance of 38,000 people per day, examining the usual logistics of managing that large crowd as a guide to imagine whether they would be ready to deal with the situation. “We took one of our most complex events in terms of safety and security,” Noonan said, “and asked ourselves, ‘how would we do it we had to confront this kind of horrific crisis?’”
What-If Conversation to Real Simulation
Turning those discussions of what-ifs into a simulation that created the level of panic that would accompany an actual active shooting situation wouldn’t be easy. After all, everyone involved had been working on this project for more than two years, making them aware of many of the details and therefore well-prepared to take action. So Noonan made sure that one of the first steps that anyone might take in an active shooter situation was taken away, so that the participants had to think in the moment. “When the drill began, we told everyone that 911 services were down,” he said. “They didn’t expect this to happen, and the objective was to improve how we communicate.”
Establishing that code of communication was one of the top priorities of the exercise. “We wanted to figure out [if] we could make sure that all first responders would be receiving the same information at the same time,” Noonan said. Before the simulation, he said, they had “built a brand new connection within the radio response network that will serve as the go-to channel for communicating.”
It wasn’t all about talking, though. Another key component that emerged in the table-top exercise was the need to help everyone see more of the activity. Noonan said that they worked to devise a system for sharing video among all stakeholders such as aerial footage from state police, footage from what’s happening in other places around the city from first responders, and footage from the actual building. “By and large, the exercise felt like a big success,” Noonan said. “Now, we have to be able to continue to validate, test, and tweak the plan. It’s going to be a living and breathing document.”
While the MCCA and its first responder partners will be the most involved in the continuing development of the plan, Noonan highlighted that input and interest from event organizers will be essential. “We want organizers to ask us about it,” he said. “We want to work with them in advance of events on how we will handle this kind of situation. We aren’t going to fill them in on every detail, but we do want to sit and talk about it to show each organizer how their events fit into it.”
“The more clients are aware of it,” Noonan said, “the better we’ll be.”
David McMillin is a Convene associate editor.