As we reach the 10th anniversary of September 11, we can look back at the last decade and see how this high profile incident has affected the venues and events industry internationally. As Director of Safety for the 2002 Salt Lake City Winter Olympics, I recall the personal effect this incident had on me and my colleagues. Driving to work on the morning of September 11 and listening to the radio, I recall thinking “this cannot be true – it must be some sort of radio prank.” Upon arriving at the office, a colleague said to me: “I bet you wish you were home right now.” It still hadn’t clicked what she meant.

I saw other colleagues running towards a television screen in the corner to watch the live vision. We stood there watching in horror as the second plane hit the World Trade Centre and people around me started to cry. People were unsure as to what or why this had happened but it soon became clear that this was no accident, but an act of terror on America.

At the Salt Lake Olympic Committee a decision was made that we, being located in the tallest building in Salt Lake City, should evacuate, as no one knew the extent of the attacks and whether other cities would be targeted. I watched as some colleagues chose to ignore the evacuation for a time, and continued working at their desk. As was the case in New York, history has shown that those that delayed their departure from the World Trade Centre, and did not heed early evacuation warnings, paid with their lives.  A lesson for us all when next the alarm goes off at home or work.

As we gathered our belongings, we could see Salt Lake City Airport, as air space across the U.S was shut down and a command issued by the US President to shoot down any unauthorised commercial aircraft.  Planes continued to land at the airport for hours but none took off.  This shut down remained in place for days and many travelers were stranded.

Not long after the airspace was reopened, I flew on a United 747 flight from LA to Sydney.  I recall sitting on the almost empty 747 with my fellow passengers glaring at every person as they boarded the aircraft, with that look of: ‘Can I trust this person?  Are you a terrorist?’  I guess in the short term, the aim of the terrorists to kill, maim and terrorise was successful.  Almost every person on that aircraft looked threatened, at least until drinks were served. 

As some level of comfort though there were immediate changes made to commercial airline security that have largely remained in place for many airlines and routes until today.

In the days following September 11 there was much uncertainty for staff of the Winter Olympics as to whether the Games would continue, whether America was at war, and if so with whom.  I recall thinking at the time that the 1940 and 1944 Summer Olympic Games and corresponding Winter Games of that time were cancelled because of WWII.

In the weeks after the attack, across Salt Lake City there was initially an outpouring of grief and American patriotism, with young kids standing on street corners carrying signs saying “Honk your horn for America.” For the Organising Committee, the Look of the Games sponsors erected the largest American flag I have ever seen on the side of our building. As Safety Director my initial thoughts were “do we really need to be saying to whoever was responsible for this, ‘come attack our building; we’re hosting the Olympics.’”

By doing so the Organising Committee was encouraging this patriotism and making a surreptitious statement of defiance.

In the end the Games went ahead and were a resounding success, but the heavy security presence and more detailed planning changed the way major international events were run, and the way public venues plan for security, risk and emergency management.

Some of those changes have included:

  • There is now far more stringent use of magnetometer and bag checks at high-profile public venues and major events
  • A closer relationship being developed between major public venues and their respective police commands on security planning and intelligence sharing
  • Improved information sharing amongst high profile venue operators and Government
  • Improved interface of major event with city-wide emergency planning and testing for readiness
  • An increase in the quality of security and risk management as a profession, as is demonstrated by the growth in security industry bodies, the development in Australia of a Security Risk Management Body of Knowledge, and the profile of the previous Australian and New Zealand risk management Standard AS/NZS4360, (and now ISO31000).
  • A greater understanding about the need for a more risk-based approach to security management, physical security, people security, information technology security and more.

In a book on Australia’s involvement in the war on terror titled The Unwinnable War (by Karen Middleton, released this week….my sister!), the title draws on a statement from US General David Petraeus, previously the Commander of United States and NATO Forces in Afghanistan, who suggests that this battle being waged by many countries in Afghanistan and therefore on terrorism, will never be over, and that it will be difficult to define a point of closure.

For public venues and events, this suggests that our higher level of security vigilance is here to stay, and represents the way we will continue to do our business in the future.