Perfect security? No such thing

Story highlights

  • Juliette Kayyem: Perfect security is simply not attainable
  • Numerous potential threats face major sporting events

Juliette Kayyem, a CNN national security analyst, is a professor at Harvard's Kennedy School of Government, a former assistant secretary in the U.S. Homeland Security department and founder of Kayyem Solutions, a security consulting firm. The opinions expressed in this commentary are hers.

(CNN)I know how to have a perfectly safe Super Bowl -- don't have a Super Bowl. Because the reality is that perfect security is simply not attainable. But refusing to hold major sporting events is not -- nor should it be -- an option. So what we should instead be aiming for is perfect planning -- something often misunderstood and overlooked by the public.

As someone who has been involved with security planning for major sporting events -- I presently sit on the board of the International Centre for Sport Security and the executive committee for Boston's summer 2024 Olympic bid -- I recognize the challenges confronting first responders.
These first responders will be on high alert as they work to protect the players, spectators and visitors who've amassed in Glendale, Arizona, as the New England Patriots and the Seattle Seahawks prepare to face off in this weekend's big game.
    Juliette Kayyem
    And anyone who follows the news will be aware of the litany of potential threats to an event being watched by millions of people across the globe -- ISIS, a lone wolf terrorist, a deranged individual with too much weaponry, cyber villains, enemies of the state with weaponized drones, an unvaccinated kid with the measles.
    Indeed, the list is infinite, and there has been extensive effort put into identifying and minimizing such risks. But stopping all bad things from happening can't possibly be the sole standard for judging these efforts. Instead, the less understood idea of response planning should be seen as of primary importance.
    The concept is guided by a few common themes:
    First, there is flow. The primary goal for any major event planner is not simply to focus on security, but to integrate security planning with the primary reason for such a gathering: enjoyment. At some stage, with too much security, the event loses its purpose, its reason for existence.
    While many think that security planning is static and aggressive, for major events such as this weekend's, the animating theme is actually "flow." How do we move so many people and so many different pieces, in a way that is consistent with why they are there, while also promoting safety and security? Well, one key point is not simply relying on the security apparatus. Instead, the success of planning to support flow requires some engagement by those in attendance: notice your surroundings, don't bring big bags, come to the event early and enjoy yourself, but not so much that you become a nuisance!
    Second, coordination -- more so than any particular threat -- is the focus of most pre-planning activity and of what will unfold on Super Bowl Sunday. While many people think about some sort of military "chain of command," most in the field actually talk about and support a notion of "unity of effort."
    This is no easy feat with so many different agencies from so many different levels of government involved. At the Super Bowl, for example, officials are trying to integrate the capabilities of the Transportation Security Agency with the more local efforts of Glendale's public health agency. Throw in the National Guard, the NFL's and each team's own security teams, extensive intelligence gathering efforts, traditional policing needs, and more than a few drunk spectators, and the coordination challenges become that much clearer.
    The federal government has designated the Super Bowl, as it always does, a National Special Security Event, which helps provide some order, and a single point of contact, for all federal agencies involved with this effort. These agencies have been working together, and training together, to ensure that each knows what the other is doing and is prepared to respond should the need arise.
    Finally -- and I hate to think of this way, but the need may arise -- there is a parallel planning effort to ensure that, if something does go wrong, its impact will be minimal.
    As we all saw in the wake of the Boston Marathon bombing, the immediate response of public safety agencies -- including the decision by Boston police to move all remaining runners immediately off the marathon path and focus on family reunification -- can go a long way toward reassuring crowds that they are protected and safe.
    This is not only true for bombs or other scary threats. Remember when a generator cut the lights for nearly 30 minutes in 2013's Super Bowl in New Orleans? (Otherwise dubbed the Blackout Bowl?) It was a mishap for sure, but because of preparedness and resiliency efforts built into the electrical grid at the Superdome, only half of the stadium was in darkness while a separate generator kicked in to minimize the blackout.
    In public safety planning, these are called "fail safe" precautions. In other words, if a bad thing happens, we need to know how we can limit such failures. And trust me, half a stadium in darkness is far less scary than an entire one.
    Ultimately, all this means that while the security apparatus being deployed at the Super Bowl may seem overwhelming or even intimidating in its own right, it is all part of efforts to ensure that regardless of the risk, the big game will balance the obligation to protect with the entertainment of game day we have all been waiting for.