Emergency Preparedness as an Olympic Event:
The Role of Contingency Planning in the Atlanta Centennial Olympic Games
By John Copenhaver, CDRP
The flame has been extinguished, visitors have departed, and the world spotlight has moved on to other arenas, but the memories of the 1996 Olympic Games remain memories of world records, courage triumphing over pain, and most of all the explosion in Centennial Park that provided these games’ darkest and brightest moments. Atlantans throughout the city are back to “business as usual” while wondering just what the long-term impact on our city will be. How will history judge these Games, and the city of Atlanta along with them?
For those of us who worked on the plans built to prepare for emergencies ranging from employees having difficulty getting to work up through a massive and devastating terrorist attack, the question we have all asked ourselves is: how did we do?
Beginning with Juan Antonio Samaranch’s declaration over six years ago that the 1996 Centennial Olympic Games would go to “the city of Atlanta,” the preparations for the Games seemed to gain speed and momentum as the “Days Until the Olympic Games” sign dwindled down from 1000 days to 365 days, and finally to zero.
From the beginning it was recognized that the Centennial Games would be an undertaking of unprecedented proportions. As the time grew shorter, the plans of the Atlanta Committee for the Olympic Games (ACOG) called for the largest peacetime event in the history of the planet.
Witness the following Centennial Games statistics:
• 11,000,000 tickets (more than the Lillehammer and Barcelona Games combined)
• 32 competition venues
• Almost 200 countries participating (a new record)
• Over 3000 hours of television coverage
• 60% of the human race watching (over 3 billion people)
• Approximately $5 billion economic impact to the Southeast region
Add to this spectacular mix the following projections:
• Over 300,000 Games spectators (average) each day
• At the peak of Games activity, approximately 1.5 million visitors to a city of approximately 2.5 million people
• Over 10,000 tons of trash generated
Finally, the bulk of this activity would be taking place inside an area with a radius of only 1 1/2 miles (the so-called “Olympic Ring”), the tightest, most dense packing of events and spectators in Olympic history!
Truly, the challenges seemed daunting at times, but this particular freight train was coming at us and we knew that it was going to arrive on July 19, 1996, whether we were ready or not. With the inevitability of the Games in mind, the planning proceeded at a furious pace.
Planning for the Atlanta Olympic Games took place in three main areas: 1) personal planning (do I stay in Atlanta or leave/take vacation or work/rent my home or not, etc.); 2) business planning (how will we maintain our critical functions during the Games), and 3) actual Games planning (construction, data processing, transportation, communications, logistics, security, etc.) The remainder of this article will focus on the latter two types, business planning and Games planning.
Long before the 1996 Games began, Atlanta businesses (both private and public sectors) were told that “business as usual” would be virtually impossible during the 17 days of the Games. Road closings, increased security at entrances to businesses and public areas, and shortages of parking places were anticipated well in advance of the July 19 Opening Ceremonies.
For businesses with their primary (or only) locations falling inside the Olympic Ring, the predictions were somewhat dire: employees unable to get to work, customers staying away in droves, pickups and deliveries delayed or even prevented, and services (copier repair, etc.) available either sporadically or not at all.
Consequently, seminars on “Preparing for the Olympic Games” began cropping up as early as 1994, with the final year before the Games witnessing some kind of “be prepared” seminar being held almost every week. The messages advanced by these seminars varied somewhat, but ordinarily went something like this:
• Map the location(s) of your business on a grid showing major transportation arteries, Olympic venues, parking and public transportation terminals, and known road closings.
• For those locations almost certain to be impacted by increased Games traffic or road closings, consider one or more of the following options: vacation, telecommuting, moving operations to remote sites, staggering work hours, or using buses to transport employees to and from work;
• For those locations not likely to be impacted, have backup plans “just in case” but initially plan to conduct business as usual;
• For those locations which might or might not be impacted, implement alternative work options for the first few days or the first week of the Games until an assessment of the actual impact could be made.
Those businesses choosing to permit employees to telecommute were able to select from several different seminars specifically addressing this option (although remote database accessing was often not mentioned as a potential problem, and many telecommuters discovered during the Games that their employers had not provided sufficient access ports to handle the increased call volume!)
All in all, the message of “Olympic preparedness” was delivered to those employers in Atlanta who cared to listen (and even to some who didn’t!)
The actual planning processes employed for the Centennial Games themselves were far more complex than the plans for individual businesses. This article will not address the contingency plans which had to be developed in the areas of transportation, construction, communications, data processing and logistics (It would take a superhuman effort for one person to record - much less actually read through - all the planning efforts which went into those subject matter areas!), Rather, the discussion will center on aspects of the security planning.
Much of the security and public safety planning for the Atlanta Games was, and still remains, classified information.
However, due to the absolute need for some degree of cooperation between ACOG, agencies of the public sector (intelligence, law enforcement and emergency management) and certain businesses within the private sector (e.g. data processing and utility companies), some information can be shared with regard to the planning done to make the Games secure.
The possible threats to participants in the Olympic Games were broken down into categories and subcategories. The three main categories were (of course) human, technological, and natural threats. The technological threats posed were primarily in the area of failures: equipment failures, software failures, and interface failure. These threats, while very real possibilities, did not appear to pose the threat to life and physical safety inherent in the human and natural threat categories.
The natural category of potential threats to the Games was of real and immediate concern. Chief among these concerns was the possibility of weather-related injuries, particularly heat exhaustion and/or sunstroke.
Atlanta in July can be hot and humid to extremes (100+ degrees F., and >80% humidity). How could we keep our international visitors from harm when our hands might be full just keeping Olympic staff and volunteers functioning?
The answer came in the form of “cooling stations,” air-conditioned public areas (some of which were actually equipped with “showers” that emitted a fine, cool mist) designed to permit quick access and exit.
The presence of these “cooling stations,” as well as significant numbers of emergency personnel, was a substantial factor in keeping the numbers of heat-related problems to a surprising minimum during the hottest days of the Centennial Games.
The other natural threat posed a potentially tougher problem: how to get thousands of spectators out of harm’s way should a dangerous storm hit one or more of the competition venues. Fortunately, no such storm occurred.
However, the local, state and federal emergency management authorities had held many planning sessions on the unique problem of “evacuating in” large crowds (instead of the usual procedure of evacuating people out of structures).
All in all, every kind of “natural” threat was anticipated and plans put into place to ensure that the Games spectators and staff were protected from injury at all times.
Unfortunately, the third category - “human” threats - provided the incident which we all feared most - the death of an innocent Games participant from a terrorist act. The explosion of a pipe bomb (one of three - the other two did not explode) placed in a knapsack and left in Centennial Park will likely be the single best-remembered event of the Atlanta Games. What most people will never hear about will be the days, weeks, and months of preparation and planning for terrorist activities that kept the rest of the Games secure and free from disruptions of any kind.
Long before the Atlanta Games began, activities of all known and suspected terrorist groups were being carefully monitored, and the results of this surveillance were shared by the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) and the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) with security personnel from ACOG and the local and state law enforcement groups.
Tabletop exercises and other simulations of terrorist attacks were conducted regularly to ensure a swift and coordinated response by the huge numbers of security personnel, (volunteers, ACOG security, Borg Warner security, Atlanta police, Georgia Bureau of Investigation (GBI) security, FBI agents, etc.) to a wide range of potential threats.
Notwithstanding the explosion in Centennial Park, the security at the Atlanta Games was widely regarded to be the tightest and most effective ever provided for any Olympic event - an accomplishment truly made more impressive by the massive size and scope of the event which had to be covered!
Sadly, the pipe bomb explosion has eclipsed much of the intense preparation done to provide security for the Games. Questions arising from the blast (Why weren’t metal detectors installed at the entrances to Centennial Park? How could the call to Atlanta 911 personnel have been handled differently so as to have provided more warning? ) still remain. While the response of the local, state and federal emergency management personnel to the explosion itself was immediate and well-orchestrated, the main question - could realistic steps have been taken which would have prevented this tragedy? - will in all likelihood never be answered definitely.
On July 19 at 7:00 p.m. EDT, the Centennial Olympic Games began in Atlanta, Georgia. Seventeen days later, on August 4, the Games ended. For those 17 days, the eyes of the world were focused on our city; people across the planet witnessed moments of glory and tragedy, suffering and triumph, all ultimately revealing the resilience of the human spirit. The people of the city of Atlanta are proud of the role we played on the world stage.
How did we do? The answer: Far better than the embarrassment some had predicted, but short of the perfection we sought.
John Copenhaver, CDRP is the Worldwide Crisis Response Team Advisor for IBM.
This article adapted from Vol. 9#4.
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