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How Safe Are America's Sports Stadiums?

8:13 PM, May 2, 2013   |    comments
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USA TODAY Sports -- More than 150,000 spectators will pour into Saturday's Kentucky Derby, the largest and highest-profile U.S. sporting event since last month's bombings at the Boston Marathon.

What they'll witness is a scene that became familiar in stadiums nationwide after the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001: a heightened security presence that will include electronic wand searches of patrons for suspicious objects and a fresh ban on coolers in the infield of Louisville's storied Churchill Downs.

But who are the private security guards protecting the nation's stadiums? Are they more often tasked with subduing an inebriated fan than defusing a terrorist plot in the making? How good are they?

It depends. Stadiums and entertainment venues across the nation routinely rely on low-paid, part-time security guards with spotty training and even criminal convictions, an investigation by USA TODAY Sports has found.

Experts call it "security theater" at stadium gates - a show of uniforms and bag searches that does little to protect fans from what we witnessed in Boston. After that attack in broad daylight, they say the entire system needs an overhaul, from security guard regulations to the public's awareness at major events.

"Security in the United States is all about bells and whistles," says Rafi Sela, a former official with the Israel Defense Forces. "You see the guards standing at stadiums and bus stations. It's not even considerable deterrence anymore."

Security company officials and experts say such guards might be the biggest gap in the security of U.S. sporting events. If intelligence fails to stop a plot before a bomber reaches the gate, the guards are often the next and possibly last line of defense against a Black Sunday scenario - an attack in a crowded stadium as depicted in the 1977 film about a bombing attempt at the Super Bowl. These are the workers hired by private firms to search bags and people, enforce rules and control entry points.

MORE: Center seeks to certify stadium security standards

Because security guard companies offer sporadic employment that does not pay well, turnover is high: Security company officials say guards usually don't stay on the job for more than a year or two. Twenty-three states don't even require applicants to complete any training.

"In the event world, it is not the fire marshals and police that take care of facilities," says Damon Zumwalt, chairman and CEO of Contemporary Services Corporation (CSC), one of the nation's most respected event security firms, based in Northridge, Calif. "It is private security, and the private industry is woefully deficient in knowledge and procedures which could possibly prevent attacks of many kinds."

HOLES IN THE SYSTEM

Zumwalt says tougher mandates are critical. Just like lessons learned after the Oklahoma City bombing in 1995 and the 2001 attacks, he and other U.S. officials are looking to learn from Boston. International security experts in more volatile regions of the world say the U.S. approach to thwarting attacks is part of the problem, a view that has echoed around the globe for years, especially as it pertains to U.S. airports.

Sela, who now works as an international security consultant, says, "Boston could have been avoided."

An investigation by USA TODAY Sports also found:

Criminal backgrounds. This year, California has revoked 154 security guard licenses, often because of criminal convictions discovered after the license was issued, according to state records. Florida has revoked an average of more than 350 security licenses annually the past five years, also often for criminal records. Those numbers are only known because those states regulate the industry.

Training, licensing gaps. Seven states require no security-guard licensing at all. Among those that do, several, including Massachusetts, don't require training. Indeed, security at the Boston Marathon's finish line was staffed by a blend of volunteers and police. In Florida and California, 40 hours of training are required, including a course on terrorism awareness and weapons of mass destruction. In Hawaii, which previously required no training, new requirements taking effect July 1 will stipulate at least eight hours of training. The bill was sponsored by state Sen. Rosalyn Baker, who told USA TODAY Sports that an upgrade was needed because guards "didn't know what their responsibilities were."

Cost-cutting undermines safety. Most pro and major college teams hire private security firms for games, often selecting them based on cost or through a low-bid process, event security officials say. This business model can create budget pressures that lead to cutting corners on security at games.

"I get undercut (in bidding) by contractors who cut corners, absolutely," says Cory Meredith, president of Staff Pro, an event security company based in Huntington Beach, Calif. "We know what it takes to supply a professional well-trained person, and we refuse to go below a certain level. You can only slice the bologna so thin."

Loose definitions, loose security. Some companies have used employees classified as "event staff" in security roles at stadiums to avoid training requirements and increase profits, says Dane Dodd, CSC's vice president of training. He says he's seen event staff doing bag searches and controlling access to restricted areas - jobs that he said should be done by higher-paid trained guards. "This is one of the ways the industry gets around regulation, where it exists," says Dodd, whose company has staffed more than 100 stadiums and more than 50 branch offices across the nation.

A 'SUPER' FAIL

With video cameras fastened to their foreheads, students Malachi Youngblood and Joseph Roberts recently filmed a documentary claiming how easy it was to sneak into the biggest, most secure game of the year - the Super Bowl in New Orleans on Feb. 3.

The video shows the duo as they casually walked past several police officers and security guards before getting inside the Mercedes-Benz Superdome. The video shows nobody really checking them - not even the guard who let them in the door without asking questions. NFL spokesman Greg Aiello says the matter is under investigation and declined to identify the responsible security contractor. The NFL's main security contractor at the Super Bowl, S.A.F.E Management, also declined to comment.

"If this could happen at a Super Bowl, imagine what is going on at other venues," Dodd says.

Last year, a KDVR reporter tested pro stadium security in Denver, where the state of Colorado requires no training to get a license. For the second year in a row, she and a colleague were able to sneak in a real pistol (but with a concealed weapons permit) and a fake gun at stadiums.

Such venues have long been thought of as prime targets in a post-9/11 world, well before the magazine Inspire, a propaganda tool for al-Qaeda, drew attention recently because it listed "crowded sports arenas" as ideal targets. The U.S. Department of Homeland Security has been advising stadium officials for years and has conducted assessments to detect vulnerabilities.

But the department only has an advisory role in relation to the guards hired at these venues. As a result, no national enforceable standards guide the industry, leaving a patchwork of regulations and practices that vary from state to state, team to team and contractor to contractor.

Ultimately, it comes down to trust. A stadium or team must be able to vouch for the security it hires.

"Each facility might have a different answer for this," says David Scott, president of the Stadium Managers Association. "But as a general statement, there are long-standing relationships with the companies that provide that staffing."

CSC says it goes beyond state requirements, including additional training and assessments as well as using people to test their security with banned or suspicious objects.

In 2005, the company was staffing a University of Oklahoma football game when a student, John Henry Hinrichs III, blew himself up with a bomb about 200 yards from the facility. Zumwalt, the company's CEO, suspects the man probably wanted to enter the stadium with the device but was thwarted by the sight of vigorous bag searches. The FBI investigated and deemed it not to be an attempt at terrorism.

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