Hardening Mass Gatherings

By: Carlton Purvis, Published on May 06, 2013

Hardening mass gatherings is inherently challenging yet increasingly important. As the Boston bombing demonstrated, doing so is hard over the large areas and crowds. In this note, we share recommendations from Jim McGee [link no longer available], Senior Program Manager at The Soufan Group [link no longer available].

McGee has more than 25 years of law enforcement experience, much of it working on international security issues and infrastructure protection. He is also an adjunct professor at the Tulane University Department of Homeland Security Studies and a former member of the National Center for Spectator Sport Safety and Security at the University of Southern Mississippi.  We talked by phone about what it takes to harden marathons, large venues and mass gatherings while McGee was on his way to a meeting with the Brazilian delegation for the 2014 World Cup. 

The Largest Venue of All: The Marathon

McGee helped plan the 2004 Summer Olympics marathon in Athens and the Commonwealth Games in India in 2010. Despite having more than 20 miles to secure, he says, it is not impossible to harden a marathon route. “You have a 26-mile long venue. That is going to make it a hard target to protect, and it can be easily perceived as a very soft target which is what terrorists are looking for,” McGee said.

“What I’ve seen work well is the implementation of mounted law enforcement deployed along the route,” McGee said. “You have officers that are elevated above the ground and it’s great for crowd management as well. Most large Police Departments have the capability to place officers on horseback.”

He also said assessment teams, made up of federal agents and local law enforcement should be on the ground providing the eyes and ears for authorities. They can keep an eye out for suspicious activity and can get a closer look at people who may have been spotted by officers on horseback, from other observation posts or security cameras.

Some other suggestions include keeping standoff distance between runners and spectators, placing elevated observations posts along the route and reducing areas where IEDs can be discreetly placed.  “You don’t want to have any trash cans without a sealed lid on them or parked vehicles along the route,” McGee says. 

His strongest advice for securing marathons, however, is to replicate a tradition from the Olympic Games: Begin and end the marathon in a stadium. “That’s going to help security because you can eliminate backpacks, have control over who has access to the event and have standoff distances away from the runners by having people sit in the stands ... I know some runs are iconic and want to maintain the route they’ve always had but I think it’s worth it from a safety perspective to try to end it in a stadium or an arena.” 

McGee says there is a formula that can be applied to secure any major event:

Threat Assessment

Securing mass gatherings starts with a reliable threat assessment, McGee says. “You need to know what the situation is in the area, what are the things that may impact your event.” These can be anything from gang activity to political unrest to natural disasters. 

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Leading up to the event the assessment should be updated at regular intervals that become more frequent as the event gets closer. By the time of the event, organizers and security should be getting threat assessments multiple times a day and at least once each shift. 

Venue Risk Assessment

A risk assessment of the venue should be conducted early on in order to identify potential vulnerabilities in the emergency response plan, venue security and overall event operations. If security gaps are detected, corrective actions must be implemented to address the vulnerability.

Emergency Response Plans

Threat assessments are not predictions. A large part of preparedness is having a response protocol in the form of an Emergency Response Plan (ERP). ERPs should include specific sections on procedures for different scenarios like bomb threats, terrorism, public health or hazmat incidents and evacuations.


After plans are developed and Risk Assessments are completed, event organizers should train and hold response drills for the different scenarios.  “You have to test your personnel. That’s when you’ll find additional gaps in physical security, cyber security and response plans,” McGee says. “After training and exercise you must fill those gaps as well through corrective actions.” 


This is the last part of the formula where everything planned up until the event is put into place. After the event it is critical that an After Action Review is done to discuss what went right and what went wrong during the event. Then the process starts all over in the form of a continuous improvement cycle.

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