Terrorist Attacks and the Arts: Preparing for the Worst

An entirely new industry rises to confront the unthinkable.

Near the Bataclan Theater in Paris. Photo: Flickr user, Duc

Recent terrorist attacks in Paris, Manchester and, most recently, Las Vegas have us thinking about whether and how performing arts and entertainment facilities can best prepare themselves for a bombing or mass shooting.

While it’s terrible that we have to even ask the question, it doesn’t look like the world is changing in ways that would diminish the risk of these events. We’d better start preparing for the possibility that more tragedies are coming.

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To start our team’s investigation into this topic, we called our old friend Paul Turner, Senior Director of Event Operations at AT&T Stadium in Dallas, home of those darn Cowboys. Paul is also the current chair of the International Association of Venue Managers Safety and Security Committee. He is also working with the National Center for Spectator Sports Safety and Security (NCS4) on their Sport Security Professional Certification program to train folks in this world to prepare for all sorts of nasty things.

Paul has spent years working in, and consulting for, performing arts and entertainment venues; he knows our world. He is aware of how these threats are evolving, from the Century Aurora movie theater in Colorado to the Bardo National Museum in Tunis, from the Bataclan Theater in Paris to Manchester Arena in England and The Route 91 Harvest Country Music Festival in Las Vegas.

An entirely new industry has developed to help reduce the risk and impact of terrorist attacks, with a new breed of consultants running various risk analysis models and security companies encouraging the deployment of anti-terror teams. In fact, the AT&T Stadium — where Paul is — has not one, but two sniper teams working during all events. Adding to this concept, I was fascinated to read about the Terrorism Risk Insurance Act (TRIA) signed by President Obama in 2015 and the growth of terrorism insurance, with artists buying additional coverage to protect against injury, damage and disruption caused by a terrorist attack.

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Paul’s view is that the threat keeps changing; thus, it’s very difficult to identify and fix any particular threat so as to prevent tragedies from occurring. While certain preventative measures should definitely be taken, he believes that arts, sport and entertainment venues should focus more on preparing facility staff and audiences for the possibility of a terrorist attack. The goal is to have people able to react in ways that minimize death and disaster.

Ready to react in ways that minimize death and disaster.

The first element of this is the concept of “situational awareness.” Facility staff and audiences need be more awake and aware of where they and what risks are present at any moment in time. Post-disaster research suggests that most people are too slow to recognize that they are, in fact, in the middle of a disaster. Examples include audience members not accepting that gunshots they hear are actually gunshots, or people assume that a momentary upset will quickly pass. Audiences can lose precious time and put themselves and others at risk.

This is not to say that audiences must approach every moment of a public event on high alert, but it is prudent to give these scenarios much thought, the same way we are sure to silence mobile devices and use the bathroom before the start of an event. Most important, everyone should ask themselves: “if something goes wrong here, how do I get out?”

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I recently heard a great interview with a doctor who’s been working with other security and safety professionals on the question of how to reduce fatalities during mass shootings and bombings. These high-level discussions led to a series of recommendations on preparation, but their conclusion was that the best way to save lives is to have people inside the event assisting each other — most importantly by stopping the bleeding of injured people around them. The doctor suggested that the odds of saving a life increase dramatically if those around the injury have the presence of mind to simply apply pressure to a wound with a tourniquet or even their own hands.

I’m not yet prepared to suggest that there be mandatory drills where we suddenly find ourselves in mock-massacres and practice how to respond. That said, we do need to develop what Paul calls, “a culture of safety to go with our situational awareness.” We should all know what a gun sounds like and what to do when we hear one firing in a public place. And we should all consider the possibility that we might one day be in a disaster, with the ability to save our lives and others.