Protecting mass gatherings: let’s leverage private security professionals

Image courtesy of Flickr user Guru Nathan.

Mass gatherings protection is focused on counterterrorism and public safety. Compared to critical infrastructure protection, however, it’s been the area least amenable to national leadership.

The issue has recently been highlighted in regional NSW. Four cancelled Anzac Day marches in Katoomba, Blackheath, Springwood and Glenbrook may now go ahead after the Blue Mountains local council said it would assist with the costs of the NSW government’s new anti-terrorism requirements. After last year’s terrorist truck attack in Nice, local government imposed new security legislation designed to protect crowds, including a requirement for water-filled barriers. Demand for greater security mechanisms in public spaces will only increase after the recent deaths in Melbourne’s CBD. And that type of security, along with the NSW government’s requirements, won’t come cheap.

Governments want to keep their people safe, no matter where they are. As Malcolm Turnbull emphasised in his national security address on 23 November, working out how to best protect Australia’s public spaces is a key aspect of that goal. An ideal place to start any work in that area would be for the Australian government listen to and learn from those who undertake that job on a daily basis, rather than telling them how to do it. That will entail seeking new ways to engage Australia’s private security professionals.

The government should recognise that it isn’t as good at protective security as those who already work in the industry. Some government employees do have those skills and formal qualifications, however, but they tend to work at lower levels of the public service, where they offer in-house advice to departments. They certainly aren’t designing effective strategies to be implemented by government at a higher level, or by the corporate sector. Even fewer of those government employees are members of professional associations which provide access to a significant body of knowledge and international and cross-discipline contacts that membership provides. As far as actual experience in managing security functions at places of mass gathering, the expertise in the public sector is minimal.

But where the government does have significant expertise is in providing overarching security policy, the provision and coordination of government resources and responses, and gathering and assessing information. The National Guidelines for the Protection of Places of Mass Gatherings from Terrorism denotes that operators of ‘places of mass gathering’ (PMG) must ‘provide adequate security for their assets, based on threat and risk,’ and to ‘actively apply risk management techniques in their planning processes,’ along with other similar statements of the obvious.

The policy requires that intelligence-led advice be provided to those operators ‘when relevant’ and that the government will respond to their queries usually via an industry Business Advisory Group. It’s not clear who’s represented in this group, or indeed if professional bodies such as the Venue Management Association, Facility Management Association, ASIS International or the Australian Amusement, Leisure and Recreation Association have been engaged in this debate. The current policy assigns such industry and professional associations the role of disseminating information. But despite their expertise and experience, those groups are not being engaged to provide input on the best way to keep PMGs safe.

A primary function of the government is to provide information and analysis that’s not available through the media and industry contacts nationally and internationally to operators of PMGs. Those responsible for protecting PMGs want answers to several key questions:

  • What new terrorist tactics are being employed or planned by extremist groups?
  • What measures have worked or failed elsewhere to protect PMGs?
  • What indicators are there that a specific tactic may be used against a venue or event?
  • Is there any information that suggests their venue is being targeted right now?

Other than the final question, private security professionals can get most of that information from open-source or industry contacts.

Local government is also key in protecting PMGs. Any attack against a PMG will occur in a local government area (with the exception of the ACT and NT). However, besides scoring a brief mention in the most recent policy on PMGs, no specific role is denoted for local government. Councils organise or oversee many PMG activities, including Anzac Day, Australia Day, rural shows and community days. They often coordinate the volunteers who plan, staff and manage the events as well as those who form the volunteer response capabilities. Local government will often feel it hardest when an incident occurs, and currently, the urban-based resources that form the backbone of CT planning are either thin or non-existent outside the metropolitan domain.

The Australian Local Government Association, representing over 560 councils across the country, hasn’t been involved in counterterrorism arrangements, in spite of the key responsibilities for public safety, noted above, held by the third tier of Australia’s governance.

Three steps will be essential to improving the current state of security mechanisms at PMGs. First, policymakers need to undertake work to identify how local government could be better integrated into domestic security plans and assist with strengthening the nation’s preparedness for a mass casualty attack, while ensuring that community life can continue as normal. Second, the federal government should listen to, not just talk at, the security professionals who plan and implement protection from a wide range of threats. And third, local government should be given the opportunity to provide input on the topic.