IF YOU'RE PLANNING an event that will be attended by the United States president, vice president, members of their immediate families, past presidents, major presidential and vice presidential candidates and their spouses, various other public officials, or dignitaries from overseas visiting the U.S., you will need to work with the U.S. Secret Service. Don't worry about contacting them — they'll find you.
Congress has charged the Secret Service with two responsibilities: criminal investigations and the protection of our nation's leaders. Couple that with 9/11 and its aftermath, and you can understand the stress they're under. (Interestingly, the Secret Service has been designated the lead agency by the Department of Homeland Security for any celebration deemed a “National Special Security Event.”)
Based on our work over the years with the Secret Service, we offer several suggestions to help make your own experience successful.
- There is no compromise
When working with the Secret Service, the most important thing you should know is, they rule. Your boss or client may be the president of a Fortune 500 company, but the guy with the pin in his lapel will get his way — if you expect your VIP to attend. At the Fort Lauderdale (Fla.) Air & Sea Show, we had to relocate a major VIP party because the Secret Service felt it would have been impossible to provide adequate security for the three- and four-star generals who were attending.
- Do your homework
A threat assessment, which precedes every event, is the process by which each possible security threat is identified and resolved. Factors include the event's location, whether it is open to the public, the sponsoring organization's reputation and the high-profile people who will attend. We always develop a plan in tandem with a professional security firm to identify every possible threat — from gatecrashers to public demonstrations. While the Secret Service respects a well-developed security plan, the agency has certain operative criteria that cannot be changed.
- Don't take anything personally
Dealing with someone who doesn't smile, barks orders and has you make changes that can impact the entire feel of an event would be a challenge for anyone — even seasoned event planners. Don't take Secret Service demands as personal criticisms. Remember that the threat potential is what dictates how they do their job.
- Build rapport by doing the things they require before they arrive on the scene
The Secret Service has scores of rules to help ensure the safety of the dignitary, and removal of garbage cans (bombs could be hidden inside) is just one of them. Manhole covers along the parade route must be welded shut, and rooftop access is severely restricted. Air traffic near the event site usually must be diverted — especially if the president is attending. The Secret Service uses local bomb squads to check out sewers and do sweeps of the event site. Since 9/11, the use of bomb-sniffing dogs to comb the event site has become de rigueur.
- Plan for any conceivable type of emergency
Most events require a backup plan for medical emergencies, but it is much more elaborate when the Secret Service is involved. You'll need to know the location of the nearest level-one trauma center, have an alternate “safe route” mapped out to rush a dignitary there and have a lengthy list of emergency phone numbers at your fingertips.
- Schedule your time to allow for lots of hands-on activity with the Secret Service
Depending on the type of event and the level of the person being protected, the Secret Service works in different ways. Usually, they make their first visit to a site a week prior to the event. The day of the event, they will expect a detailed walk-through of the site. Be prepared for last-minute changes. We've had to completely change the travel paths for guests and implement subsequent crowd control changes to accommodate Secret Service requirements.
Are you aware if a dignitary who is speaking at your event has Secret Service protection? Do you know that if the president is attending your event, the Secret Service will need to install a walk-through metal detector and bulletproof podium? Would you know the restrictions on a fireworks display? Are you prepared to deal with an unexpected situation such as a bomb blast? (We had one at the Centennial Olympics in Atlanta.)
With so many hundreds of details, it may pay for you to get experienced help to ensure your event runs smoothly.
Jodi Wolf is president of Paulette Wolf Events & Entertainment, a Chicago-based event management company that specializes in complex events. She can be reached at 773/475-4300; her company's Web site is www.pwe-e.com.
A TRIP THROUGH THE VET
When working with the Secret Service, be prepared for the vetting process. These are background checks that determine whether someone who poses a threat to a dignitary should be excluded. To be vetted, everyone from the vendors and their staffs to the guests is required to provide basic information, including full name, address, birthplace, birth date and Social Security number. We have created a one-page form for people to fill out and fax back to us.
The newly vetted have certain prerogatives at the event such as proximity (within limits) to the dignitary. They receive a specific type of credential to designate their status.
There can be as many as 10 different types of credentials for events. At the Centennial Olympics in Atlanta — where we supervised 250 event and entertained President Bill Clinton and a host of celebrities from Arnold Schwarzenegger to Muhammad Ali over a 30-day period in the Olympic Village — our extensive security plan included eight credentials ranging from lapel pins for the Secret Service to thermal hand-screening for athletes and employees with access into the residential area of the athletes' village.