SU Athletics

Dome security adapts in world with growing terrorism concerns

Todd Michalek | Contributing Photographer

Sixteen years after 9/11, how safe are sporting events like the Carrier Dome?

Nothing scares John Sardino more than the in-between, when he’s waiting to hear whether a threat or report is credible. About once every other year, one will pop up on the Department of Public Safety associate chief’s radar. Whether it’s a threat on social media or an individual with suspicious behavior roaming the Carrier Dome concourse, the most stressful part of Sardino’s job is the three to four hours it takes for his units to solve such issues.

But aside from a concession stand fire about 10 years ago, a few small fights and a 2012 stabbing, there have been no terrorism incidents at the Carrier Dome, which opened 37 years ago. DPS leads an arsenal that includes Carrier Dome security staff, the Syracuse Police Department and the Syracuse Fire Department, creating a multi-layered protection scheme from the parking lots to the entrances to the front-row seats.

The team deploys an array of technology to ensure the safety of thousands of patrons. Before every game, detection dogs make a full sweep of the premises, including alleyways, corners and loading docks. The fire department conducts an assessment of its own. About 100 DPS and SPD officers work inside the Carrier Dome and its surrounding areas on football game days. Nearly 80 cameras monitor every move of every square inch at the Dome, save for bathrooms and other areas with an expectation of privacy.

“Everybody’s susceptible,” said Sardino, who has worked for DPS since 1985. “Fortunately, we are really ahead of the game. We don’t cut corners when it comes to security.”

Sixteen years after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, the apprehension associated with terrorism threats has not faded. Three people were killed and more than 260 were injured at the Boston Marathon in 2013, when two bombs detonated near the finish line. At a November 2015 Germany-Netherlands soccer match, a bomb threat led to the evacuation of the stadium. Attacks in Paris that same month killed over 130 people and injured nearly 370 others. Three of the suicide bombings occurred near a sports stadium, where a security guard prevented a larger tragedy by discovering a bomber’s suicide vest when the attacker tried to enter the stadium.

An Arizona man accused of helping plan an attack on a Prophet Muhammad cartoon in Texas also inquired about explosives to attack the 2015 Super Bowl, according to court documents. And, in May 2017, an explosion killed 22 people at an Ariana Grande concert in England.

While there has not been a major terror attack at a large stadium in the U.S., law enforcement at the Carrier Dome and similar venues across the country face an ever-growing test: incorporating beefed-up security measures by employing more personnel and technology while maintaining a relaxed atmosphere that keeps fans wanting to come back.

So as the risk of terrorist attacks at public events increases, and as the body count rises, there remains the question: How long can the typical sporting experience remain the same?

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Andy Mendes | Digital Design Editor

On a platform in front of Gate A, DPS officer Dan LeBron is standing a few feet outside of the Carrier Dome’s revolving doors.

From his perch, LeBron gazes at the passersby. Every few moments, he pans to the left and right, singularly focused on the search for suspicious behavior. The triggers are endless, he said: nervousness, sweaty cheeks, hands glued to pockets, baggy clothing and sagging pants. He said 90 percent of what he looks for is nonverbal. He has confiscated four knives and guns in his 19 years at the Dome.

LeBron, 46, has wanted to work in law enforcement since he was 5 or 6 years old. He has worked for DPS since 1998, helping secure Carrier Dome football and basketball games, concerts, monster truck events and NCAA Tournament games. He’s also DPS’ training coordinator, helping integrate new officers and refresh even the most experienced ones twice per year on Article 35 New York state Penal Law, which encompasses the use of firepower.

For Saturday’s game against Middle Tennessee State, LeBron arrived at DPS offices around noon, slipped into his uniform and checked into the Dome at 1:30 p.m., two hours prior to kickoff, when gates open. LeBron and his colleagues have arrested hundreds of people at the Dome, mostly for disorderly conduct. He also assists with health-related issues.

“I need a DPS officer at the first aid room,” his walkie-talkie buzzed shortly after kickoff.

On game days, LeBron gets plenty of rest. He sleeps eight hours and meditates daily to mitigate the stress of his job. He drinks over five gallons of water per day, he said, to increase concentration.

New technology has provided him the time to redirect his sights. Given that he wears a body camera and is surrounded by dozens of cameras at the Dome, LeBron focuses less on, say, pockets, and more on the overall behavior of patrons.

“There’s a lot of unknowns in life,” he said. “A guy could kill his whole family and show up to the game, with no indication. Most of the time, the fear of crime is worse than the crime itself.”

As a cost-cutting measure, many law enforcement agencies have cut back on the number of security personnel like LeBron. DPS has not. SU hires some off-duty officers to work inside the Dome during events. Many SPD officers are hired to handle traffic control for streets and highways leading to the Dome. They are the least technologically advanced aspect of security, but experts said that well-trained personnel are the most important line of defense.

“This life is stressful,” LeBron said. “When we get excited, that causes hysteria. It’s about being cool under pressure.”

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Todd Michalek | Contributing Photographer

Many experts agree on one thing: 9/11 marked the major change for event security. There had been some cameras in the Dome since the early 1990s, Sardino said, but the enclosed circuit system grew rapidly in the 2000s.

“The awareness level, the sophistication of it and the attention to detail completely changed,” Sardino said.

After 9/11, Sardino said that the Dome staff began using metal-detecting wands. Security guards toyed with random checks, but they learned patrons want consistency. About seven years ago, they standardized the procedures for all events, checking all bags and “wanding” everyone. That includes SU men’s lacrosse coach John Desko and SU men’s basketball assistant coach Adrian Autry, both of whom were given no special treatment outside Gate A on Saturday afternoon.

At the Carrier Dome, all deliveries must be inspected. The location of fuel and water, as well as the keys and codes to opening entrances and exits, is all secured.

The layered method begins with SU Parking Services. As patrons approach the Dome, DPS officers stay attentive to minimize the chance of suspicious activities near the outside of the Dome. Security personnel are stationed outside nearly every bleacher section and entrance way.

A coordinating center is set up outside of the Dome, where authorities monitor hundreds of camera feeds from around SU’s campus. The location for the command center changes frequently.

9/11 may have brought security to the forefront, but recent events have renewed the importance of updating security. Last summer, Duke added walk-through metal detectors, a no-bag policy and a no re-entry policy for both football and basketball games. Fans can no longer bring large purses, tote bags, backpacks, computers, camera bags or cooler bags. The list of approved items is minimal.

The FargoDome in Fargo, North Dakota, another indoor venue like the Carrier Dome, may install walk-through metal detectors soon, said the venue’s general manager, Rob Sobolik. He said every technological upgrade can be effective, but noted that they can “make people complacent and miss things.” As he walks around the concourse, Sobolik looks for anything that can go wrong. He sometimes gets comments from patrons who are cranky or concerned with the security measures, he said.

There are between six and eight fire prevention personnel at the Carrier Dome during games, Syracuse Fire Department deputy chief Paul Cousins said. In the case of a mass evacuation, all of the Dome doors can open, he said. More air would be pumped into the facility to keep the roof up. Cousins’ team leaves little to chance, well aware that one blip could be costly.

“Our priority is to make sure there is access out of the building,” Cousins said. “Our role in terrorist events would be reactionary. If something happens, we’re prepared to manage that.”

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Andy Mendes | Digital Design Editor

Because it is an enclosed, climate-controlled environment, the Carrier Dome would be more susceptible to a gas attack than open-air facilities, according to security experts. To support the 220-ton inflated roof, air is directed upward through the Dome’s 36 main columns, each of which stands 60 feet high. One of Sardino’s chief concerns is the infiltration of the air system.

A chemical attack could involve the heating system. There are only a handful of people who know the specifics of that system, Sardino said, making it difficult to find and navigate. Nonetheless, the possibility of a chemical threat is very much real at arenas and stadiums, said Gil Fried, a professor at the University of New Haven who studies security best practices.

Fried recommends having one trained crowd management official for every 250 people. He said profiling behavior, not people, could be an effective approach to hunting down possible threats. Fried said targets such as the Carrier Dome are safe, but that nothing is 100 percent secure.

“There is going to be a terrorist attack at a sporting event in the United States,” he said. “It’s guaranteed to happen.”

James DeMeo, an event security consultant from Raleigh, North Carolina, recommends frequent risk assessment analysis by third-party firms. He said he believes every stadium should have a social media manager monitor what’s posted on the web at the venue.

Other experts echoed those concerns, saying cybersecurity is a major growth industry that will continue to come under the microscopes of security managers. Because of recent events, security is gaining greater recognition. But most of that attention isn’t directed toward cyberspace, experts said, which could create additional concern.

Rebecca Slayton, an associate professor in Cornell’s science and technology department, said she does not see cyberterrorism as an issue, particularly at sporting events. Terrorists could do little beyond displaying a threat on the scoreboard, she said. However, she noted that an easier way to inflict harm would be taking over the lighting system, lock all of the doors or create a fake computer or Wi-Fi network.

She also said the possibility of an insider threat is very much alive. A disgruntled employee could poison the food or assist an attacker in bringing in weapons.

“Whenever you have tens of thousands of people, it is inherently an unsafe situation,” said Eric Oddo, a senior policy analyst at University of Maryland Center for Health and Homeland Security. “We’re moving away from traditional attacks and more toward   cyberattacks, which can cause exponentially worse damage.”

Security managers are constantly toying between where to put their attention. At the Carrier Dome, one of Sardino’s chief concerns is how to decipher real cyberthreats from ones that are not.

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Whenever a terrorism attack or shooting happens someplace in the world, Mike Fedorchuk gets a little start in his stomach. Every time, he thinks about the Carrier Dome — how safe he feels, the possible threats and the likelihood of something happening there.

Sitting outside of Huntington Beard Crouse Hall last week with his wife Jean, Fedorchuk said he has not noticed a heightened seriousness in security measures over the past two-and-a-half decades. As a football season ticket holder of 25 years, he has not encountered anything more than a patron who had “too many beers.” He said he feels safe at the Dome.

“You can notice a difference in intensity,” said Fedorchuk, who lives in Auburn. “But there’s still an attitude that something will happen elsewhere, not here.”

Fedorchuk is among the more than 27 million people to have passed through the Carrier Dome turnstiles since 1980. Several fans interviewed outside of the stadium last week said they generally feel safe. Some said they would be open to greater security measures. Others disagreed.

Frank Hunt, who graduated from SU in 1976, said he would have problem with walk-through metal detectors. DPS said it does not plan on implementing them in the near future, though Sardino did not rule out the possibility.

Before the season opener this year, John Slater of Cicero said he does not like big crowds. He has witnessed three fights at Buffalo Bills games but nothing noteworthy at the Carrier Dome.

“You see the yellow jackets, you know they’re right there,” Slater said. “Ushers are looking up and around all of the time. I’m a little concerned, but I don’t mind it.”

Last month, two Syracuse football season ticket holders for 30-plus years said they have never felt unsafe at the Dome. They both noticed an increase in lighting and security personnel post-9/11.

Nevertheless, the list of threats continues to grow, creating whack-a-mole situations for security departments at venues across the country.

“Security’s always in a cat and mouse game,” Fried said. “How can we find new ways to protect ourselves?”

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