Super Bowl Impact: How a city can stay safe during the nation’s biggest sporting event
In the next two weeks, more than one million people will flood into the Bay Area to celebrate Super Bowl 50.
Thousands will attend free events in San Francisco along Market Street and the Embarcadero in the week leading up to the game. Seventy thousand people are expected to watch the game at Levi’s Stadium in Santa Clara on Sunday, Feb. 7.
The Super Bowl is designated as a National Special Security event. It’s on par with events like presidential inaugurations, G8 summits, and papal visits. Earlier this month, the FBI issued a memo that said it was concerned about people cutting fiber optic cables around the stadium and unlicensed drones flying over the game. So ever since Santa Clara won the bid to host the game two and a half years ago, the region has been planning how to keep everyone safe.
Preparing for everything
You wouldn’t think rain would be high on the list for Super Bowl Security threats. But Super Bowl Sunday is historically one of the wettest days in the Bay Area. So during a simulation in the Emergency Operation Center (EOC) in San Francisco, it’s at the top.
Francis Zamora rattles off a long list of fake emergencies to a room full of police officers, 911 dispatchers, firemen, and paramedics. They huddle around three big tables taking notes as Zamora continues briefing them on the bad news.
“It’s 9 a.m. Tuesday,” he says. “Overnight, a huge El Niño storm has brought heavy rains, lightning and strong winds to the Bay Area. Flooding, erosion, mudslides, and power outages have been reported, and there are more to be expected.”
There are three telephones on each table – a digital phone, a satellite phone and a big vintage red telephone with a direct line to the mayor’s office. It was the only way police were able to reach former mayor Art Agnos during the ‘89 earthquake. Zamora keepsreading.
“Four electric buses have stalled in the streets, blocking traffic, and causing cars to swerve to avoid them,” he announces.
Zamora’s the public information officer for the city’s Department of Emergency Management. They manage every day – and not so everyday – emergencies in San Francisco.
He’s organized this training session for the people who will be staffing the EOC during the nine days leading up to the Super Bowl. Even though the game is going to be played 40 miles south in Santa Clara, all of the major events, concerts and parties will be taking place in downtown San Francisco at places called “Super Bowl City presented by Verizon” and “The NFL Experience Driven by Hyundai.” This room will become the central command center for anything that happens in the city that week. It’ll be staffed by people from the transportation authority, BART, MUNI, police and fire departments, the CHP, and the FBI.
“This is so we're all in one place,” Zamora says, “so we can react to things that may take place, whether they are just minor disruptions which may take place every day in a big city, or something major.”
Making sure the rest of the city stays safe
The EOC is preparing for anything and everything: big traffic accidents, an earthquake, terrorist attacks. They’ve gone through countless situations. They act out bad days, and they act out good days, too. Because despite hosting the biggest annual event in the United States, the police and fire departments will also be operating as usual – they’re bringing in enough extra personnel to ensure normal staffing at all stations across the city.
“We want to make sure that the entire city is covered, so if you need help in the Richmond district, or in the Sunset, or in Mira Loma Park, you can still get help,” Zamora says.
The EOC is activated a few times a year: for emergencies and for other big planned events, like a World Series parade. In 2010, the San Francisco Giants won their first World Series. More than one million people came into the city to celebrate. Officials blocked off Market Street, and ambulances were having trouble getting to hospitals around the city. So they turned to the EOC for a solution.
“It was great to have representatives from SFMTA in the room, and police in the room saying, ‘Hey we need to clear out Mission Street, so we can get traffic moving, and we can get emergency vehicles to have clear access where they need to go,’” Zamora says.
The location of the EOC is key. It’s just northwest of the the Civic Center on the first floor of a big grey building. The city’s 911 dispatch center is upstairs, and right down the hall is the city-wide warning siren. People staffing the EOC during the week of the Super Bowl are trained to operate the siren in case of a real emergency.
The price tag
San Francisco is spending almost $5 million to host the Super Bowl, but only two city departments allocated spending for the event in their budgets for this year: the Department of Emergency Management and the fire department. The police department did not, yet it estimates it will spend $1.5 million dollars.
SFPD public information officer Michael Andraychak says there will be an increased police presence downtown.
“You'll see officers out there on foot, on bicycles, you'll see our motorcycle officers very busy,” he says. “There will be some plainclothes officers that you probably won't see, and that's the idea.”
Officers won’t be allowed to take days off during the nine days leading up to the Super Bowl. There will be bag checks and metal detectors at most events. You’ll see officers on buses and subways with police dogs and more police at the airport. But, he says, he can’t say much more.
“If somebody was planning to do something harmful, we don't want them to know how many officers they might encounter or not encounter, or if they'll be in uniform or plain clothes,” he says.
Partners down south
The San Francisco Police Department is also closely working with the Santa Clara Police Department, which is the lead law enforcement agency for Super Bowl 50. Back in November, it organized a full blown, five hour security simulation at Levi’s Stadium, with bomb squads, SWAT teams and helicopters. And it set up its own Emergency Operations Center for game day.
Santa Clara police officer Kurt Clarke is in charge. He and his team went to the site of last year’s Super Bowl to see how law enforcement took care of business. The big game was held in suburban Glendale, Arizona. The parties took place in Phoenix. Clarke’s main takeaway was that people flock to the Super Bowl stadium even if they don’t have a ticket, just to check out the stadium or take a selfie in front of it. This year, it’ll be different. The perimeter of the stadium will be closed off to anyone without a ticket.
“The footprint is really tight around the stadium,” he says. “It will be locked down so many feet, so please do not come to the stadium because you'll just be caught in traffic or turned around or wind up in a road closure somewhere and might get lost.”
Around that footprint, police and FBI will be patrolling the stadium looking for sex traffickers, counterfeit tickets and fake NFL apparel. Those may not be the biggest public safety concerns during Super Bowl week, but law enforcement down here and back up in San Francisco’s Emergency Operations Center are trying to look at every angle.
The best defense
In the EOC there are big posters duct-taped to the walls. They have blank columns. Above them are the words “estimated fatalities,” and “confirmed fatalities.”
Zamora finishes reading the El Niño disaster simulation. Everyone will have five minutes to craft a note to send out to the public on the city’s text message alert system. Giant digital clocks hang on the walls, counting milliseconds in neon yellow numbers.
“Write this like you’re writing for a third grader, because we want to make sure that the messages are clear, but also there are a lot of people here in this city and the country that speak a different language,” Zamora tells the group.
It’s intense now, but when the Super Bowl ends, the EOC will close. It will stay empty until there’s another emergency, or until the city hosts another huge event. There could be another World Series parade, for example. After all, it is an even year.