MetLife Stadium prior to the Super Bowl on Jan. 30, 2014. (Josh Denmark/CBP)

Bioweapons Threat at Large Venues Could Come from the Sky, Fear Security Experts

Drones that can disperse bioweapons are a top worry for operators of venues hosting large gatherings — especially as regulations hamstring drone mitigation efforts and even knocking a suspicious unmanned craft out of the sky could inadvertently unleash a toxic payload such as anthrax spores.

“Unfortunately in today’s environment, mass gathering events attended by large numbers of people may be considered a terrorist target due to a large concentration of people, symbolic nature of the event, high-profile attendees and increased media attention,” Lou Marciani, director of the National Center for Spectator Sports Safety and Security at the University of Southern Mississippi, told the Blue Ribbon Study Panel on Biodefense in Washington on Tuesday. “So terrorists and other violent criminals are placing significant emphasis on attacking soft targets.”

Former Sen. Joe Lieberman (I-Conn.) and former Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Ridge, the first Homeland Security secretary, co-chair the panel, which includes former Secretary of Health and Human Services Donna Shalala, former Senator Majority Leader Tom Daschle (D-S.D.), former Rep. Jim Greenwood (R-Pa.), and former Homeland Security Advisor to President George W. Bush Kenneth Wainstein.

At a daylong panel on the impact of large-scale biological events on business and the economy, Marciani noted that vulnerable mass gatherings range from the Super Bowl to college playoffs, NBA and NHL to concerts, political conventions and more.

With the vulnerability of such events underscored by attacks like last year’s mass shooting at a Las Vegas music festival, Marciani outlined the challenge as ensuring public health, safety and security while public and private sectors interact in a complex way.

A security plan must “ensure intelligence regarding intent to use biological agents is combined with public health data,” he said, “improve domestic medical intelligence efforts,” “continue to advance national bio-surveillance,” address lacking public health infrastructure, and “develop a national medical intelligence program.”

“But a big concern to our profession is an aerial attack… presently, we lack the authorities needed to counter threats from unmanned aircraft systems. We need Congress’ assistance in providing additional counter-UAS authorities to DHS and other federal departments and agencies to legally engage and mitigate UAS threats in the national airspace system,” Marciani told the panel, emphasizing that mass gathering venues must “utilize collaborative planning processes to develop emergency operation plans for each venue, and the process should include high-level decision makers and ensure that planning, training, exercises, standards and lessons learned are connected.”

On the government side, he said officials should add training courses on biological measures for first responders to build capacity and enhance training for biodefense.

Adequate biodefense at large venues, he said, “still has far to go.” Marciani recommended establishing a sports and entertainment biodefense task force to report back to the Blue Ribbon Study Panel.

Joe Coomer, vice president of security for AMB Sports and Entertainment, told the panel that “short of large-scale natural disasters, a biological event is one of the great unknowns for a lot of venues and our stadiums that we don’t necessarily face on a daily basis — we don’t test, we don’t train.”

“We have plans that review what to do, when to do it, but it’s so broad in scale of what a biological event could be,” he said.

The former director of security for Mercedes Benz Stadium in Atlanta,University of Phoenix Stadium in Glendale, Ariz., and the Indiana Convention Center and RCA Dome in Indianapolis added that he’s confident from his experience planning with emergency managers that if an event occurs forensic investigation on the back end “will be pretty swift” in pinpointing the who, what, when, where, how and why.

“But when it comes to the immediate mitigation of a guest in the hot zone, we’re now talking about a wild card that a lot of us can prep and plan for on paper, but until it’s actually exercised we don’t know the implications of it,” Coomer continued.  “The mass event environment is highly dynamic and if we have a release through an explosion, is it through an aerosol, is it through a food contamination, what is the correct response? Again, plans on paper do work for us, except when these acts actually do happen it’s how do we response strategically and surgically — are we talking about a handful of people, are we talking about tens of thousands of folks?”

Another challenge is how much staff would be around to help given the transient workforce on game days. “A lot of them do receive basic emergency evacuation training,” but in a biocontamination situation he said there could be up to a 70 percent workforce reduction as “they will self-evacuate with everyone else because their commitment is at that level, that volunteer level or that hourly level.”

After a biological event, Coomer noted, venues would face big challenges in winning back public confidence to convince fans to return and finding employees who would want to work in that venue again.

Daschle noted that a “nightmare I keep thinking about… is a drone with an aerosolable biological weapon.”

“UAVs and drones, that is our boogeyman right now,” Coomer acknowledged. “…Our country probably sells some of the best products out there to mitigate drones and UAVs, and we cannot deploy them.”

Even with technology to identify the owner of the drone and track him down, “at best it’s a written warning, so there’s no teeth to anything that we can do to these folks.”

“And it’s getting to the point a lot of sports industries are ready to take on what is, well, if knocking one of those things out of the sky is what we’ve got to do to find out what the courts are going to do to us, can we live with that if we know it’s going to save lives?” Coomer added.

Daschle stressed that checking drone licensing is “meaningless if it’s a terrorist.”

“Is there the equivalent of an anti-missile device or something that would be able to actually target a drone to knock it out?” the former senator asked.

Coomer cited technologies such as geofencing around property that would trigger a response if penetrated by an unfamiliar drone, and drone hunter-killers that are drones designed to capture the bad drone. “I know if seems very Hollywood, but we’ve seen these things demo’d at certain test sites,” he added. Other drones can fire netting to capture a drone and drag it off.

“In Europe, we’re seeing advancements using falcons and eagles knocking drones out of the sky,” he said, to which it was noted that a bad takedown of a bioweapon-laden drone could have disastrous fallout.

Bridget Johnson is the Managing Editor for Homeland Security Today. A veteran journalist whose news articles and analyses have run in dozens of news outlets across the globe, Bridget first came to Washington to be online editor and a foreign policy writer at The Hill. Previously she was an editorial board member at the Rocky Mountain News and syndicated nation/world news columnist at the Los Angeles Daily News. Bridget is a weekly columnist for the New York Observer and a senior fellow specializing in terrorism analysis at the Haym Salomon Center. She is a Senior Risk Analyst for Gate 15 and Washington Bureau Chief for PJ Media. She is an NPR on-air contributor and has contributed to USA Today, The Wall Street Journal, National Review Online, Politico, New York Daily News, The Jerusalem Post, The Hill, Washington Times, RealClearWorld and more, and has myriad television and radio credits including Al-Jazeera and SiriusXM.

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