Risk Assessment & Management: The Overlooked Component

The bombing attacks at the Boston Marathon finish line in April 2013 highlighted the importance of including special events when determining and managing the various risks facing communities throughout the nation. Planning products used to meet federal requirements, such as a state’s Hazardentification and Risk Assessment and/or the Federal Emergency Management Agency’s Threat and Hazardentification and Risk Assessment, will help to quantify, to some extent, the risk a state or local jurisdiction faces from all types of natural, manmade, and/or technological threats.

These same assessments, though, do not always apply to and/or account for the literally hundreds of thousands of pre-planned special events of various sizes and importance that take place across the nation annually. As the Boston Marathon attack demonstrated, such events can no longer be overlooked by the emergency management and homeland security communities.

Federal, State & Local Events 

For more than a decade, the U.S. Secret Service has used the term “National Special Security Events” (NSSEs) to designate major activities or observances that, under federal law, give the Secret Service the authority and responsibility for all security planning associated with such events. NSSEs usually: (a) include the presence of national political dignitaries, foreign heads of state, and/or large crowds; or (b) have other major national or international significance. For events that do not rise to this level, there is an additional ranking protocol used at the federal level – the Special Events Program of the U.S. Department of Homeland Security.

DHS leads the overall Special Events Assessment Rating (SEAR) process for the federal government. Co-chairs of the Special Events Work Group, which represents 50+ other federal agencies, work through a risk assessment methodology of special events reported through an annual data evaluation that takes into consideration the numerous types of threats, vulnerabilities, and potentially adverse consequences associated with each event. The result is assigned a SEAR level 1 through 5 designation that is used to help determine the level of federal awareness of and support given to the event.

However, there are many events that have local- or state-level significance, but do not quite rise to the level of an NSSE – or even to a high SEAR level. Nonetheless, major gatherings of participants and/or spectators within a state, city, or local community can quickly and easily overwhelm the capabilities of a jurisdiction if a natural, accidental, or intentional incident occurs at or near the event. For that reason alone, jurisdictions at all levels of government have a continuing responsibility: (a) to develop and maintain their own situational awareness, from start to finish, of all special events; and (b) to support and fully participate in the planning process well in advance of the start date of such events. What most jurisdictions currently lack, unfortunately, is a formalized and standard methodology to complete the risk assessments needed to manage (and thereby protect) special events in a meaningful and useful way.

A New Protocol From the National Capital Region 

In Maryland, as well as the National Capital Region (NCR) – which encompasses the District of Columbia and the adjacent jurisdictions in both Virginia and Maryland – efforts are currently developing a formalized protocol for reporting special events, risk assessments associated with those events, and preparedness and operational support required. As a region with numerous unique security challenges as well as a heightened sense of vulnerability – because of its proximity to the nation’s capital and other resources of national significance – the NCR jurisdictions recognize the importance of assessing the risks associated with special events in order to effectively reduce or eliminate the potential for jurisdictional resources to become overwhelmed.

At the state level, the assessment of risks for special events also has become increasingly important. Although pre-planned events might not have seriously alarmed most law enforcement and public safety officials in the past, that level of concern seems to have changed. Because of the many worldwide and domestic terrorist attacks in recent years, as well as the occurrence of natural disasters that also seem to be steadily increasing, pre-planned special events are now recognized as having potentially drastic consequences for any host jurisdiction. In short, the need to manage risk is already at a fairly high level, and still climbing.

The development and implementation of an effective risk assessment process, as well as a preparedness and operational support program, will be no small undertaking for any state, regional, or local jurisdiction involved. An effective process will have to be developed for the collection of data that is not limited to a mere format, but also includes a robust information collection plan that takes into account factors to be quantified in later analysis.

Although certain aspects of a special events risk assessment program could be modeled after the DHS and NSSE prototypes, individual states and localities should be cognizant of the accompanying data limitations as well. States may rely to a certain extent, for example, on fusion centers to assist with threat information, but the more comprehensive and detailed threat data available to the federal government that allow for truly quantifiable analysis may have restricted accessibility and thus be unavailable to states.

Various consequences and impacts of special concern may also differ considerably when assessing the risk posed by a special event from the state or local perspective rather than from a federal perspective. The participation of various dignitaries may well be defined in a different way for a local jurisdiction than it would be at the federal level. For example, although a major event in which all members of a county’s elected leadership are in attendance would perhaps never rise to the federal level of qualifying as a SEAR or NSSE event, there still could be potentially devastating consequences for the local government if an incident would occur that incapacitates most or all of its elected leadership.

Additionally, the projected attendance will have to be analyzed carefully. Postulating a simple numeric value will not be enough for a state to fully assess the potential vulnerabilities and consequences related to a specific event. The concentration of attendees at a particular time in the event, the location of the event – and its proximity to trauma centers and/or acute care facilities – and the availability of temporary emergency sheltering for attendees should all be taken into account to fully assess, and thereby manage, the risk associated with any given event.

Potential Obstacles & The First Steps 

As previously stated, the development and implementation of a special-event risk assessment methodology at the state level is a major undertaking. Because of the usually ified nature of detailed threat information, ensuring the availability of such intelligence can be one major challenge, but there are others that states also will face. Even at the federal level, participation in the annual request for data is voluntary, and as such the information provided may be limited; in other words, not all pre-planned special events will be captured through the data request process.

However, risk management is necessary regardless of the event being reported, which means that states will be forced toentify alternative mechanisms to obtain information, or create some type of regulatory requirement to report special events. The lack of situational awareness may, under any given circumstance, have a variety of root causes – ranging from jurisdictions wanting to limit participation in planning and preparedness by outside entities to a failure to recognize the inherent risk associated with special events. Such sensitive issues must therefore be addressed early and then be carefully managed for a successful and effective risk assessment program to function.

States also may be faced with issues of funding and resource expectations. For events that rank higher (and/or are simplyentified, for a variety of reasons, as being of higher risk), local planners and organizers might reasonably expect to receive at least some resources and technical expertise, or funding support, to help manage the risks and supplement any gapsentified through the risk assessment process. In today’s world of limited funding and more careful resource allocation across all levels of government, states must be prepared to at least help provide the additional resources needed to meet the risk levels anticipated.

A Necessary Next Step 

Numerous federal reporting requirements are already in place for states and UASI (Urban Area Security Initiative) regions that assist in the process to assess and quantify both the risks involved and the levels of preparedness needed for each state and the region as a whole. The previous emphasis in emergency management and homeland security planning has focused on the highest-risk, highest-consequence, and highest-probability categories of natural, technological, and manmade threats that any given jurisdiction might face. Very few jurisdictions, though – the NCR is a notable exception – specifically address pre-planned special events when assessing the overall spectrum of potential risks.

Events that do not rise to the level of federal involvement through NSSE or SEAR designation still have the ability to overwhelm local resources and, therefore, to increase the need for state-level risk management activities. The development and implementation of comprehensive risk assessment methodology will not be without its challenges, but should significantly increase the ability of all states and regions – and the nation as a whole – to manage risk and enhance preparedness.

Jennifer Ryan

Jennifer Ryan is a preparedness planner at the Maryland Emergency Management Agency. She holds a B.S. from Towson University and an M.S. in Emergency Health Services and Epidemiology from the University of Maryland Baltimore County. She is a lifelong resident of Baltimore, Maryland, where she currently volunteers as an emergency medical technician in her spare time.



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