The Show on KJZZ

Listen live weekdays at 9 a.m.

From clear bags to metal detectors, here's why event security works and what the future looks like

By Lauren Gilger
Published: Tuesday, November 28, 2023 - 12:02pm

Audio icon Download mp3 (11.86 MB)

Two security guards controlling crowd by entrance, overhead view
Getty Images

It seems, more and more often, that when you go to a big event — be it a concert or a football game — you should remember to bring your ticket and your keys and your clear, plastic bag to put them in. It’s at the symphony, the theater, some national monuments. And it’s not just bags. We see metal detectors everywhere, too. 

So, how are security protocols changing at events big and small?

To find out, The Show got a hold of Steven Adelman, who literally wrote the book on it.

Adelman heads up the Adelman Law Group, which advises on safety and security at live events, and he is vice president of the Event Safety Alliance. He wrote the industry standard guidelines for event safety for American National Standards Institute. 

He told The Show things are changing, and it all goes back to 9/11. 

Interview highlights

On security changes since 9/11

STEPHEN ADELMAN: Before 9/11, I think it's safe to say that when people saw a line for bag check or pat downs, much less hand wands, you know, magnetometers, the reaction was, “Oh my goodness, why are there all these security precautions? What's unsafe about this venue?” Since 9/11, that attitude has, I think, gone through a 180-degree shift. Now, when people don't see those kind of security measures — at least at large venues — they wonder, “Am I going to be safe at this show?” So that's a seismic change in a pretty short amount of time.

On security theater

ADELMAN: Well, there is an element of what's called security theater. So the look of safety is important. I mean, feeling safe is partly a feeling, partly substance and partly it's the way we feel about experiencing public places. So there is an element of security, theater, and that is fine. It’s not just pejorative. And there is a substantive benefit Every security measure makes us a little bit safer relative to whatever were the risks and hazards as of that time. The problem is, time does not stop, and the risks and hazards that we identified — I don't know — a few years ago are not the same and not of the same magnitude as they are today, which in turn is not the same as what they will be next week or next year.

On clear bag policies

ADELMAN: So things like clear bag policies, those are relatively new and they tend to appear only at the largest public accommodations. You know, big stadiums, big arenas, big sporting events. So let’s not go overboard on focusing on things like clear bag policies. That is specific to certain environments and incompatible with others.

LAUREN GILGER: That's interesting. So, I mean, one of the things that prompted this conversation for me was that my parents went to the symphony recently and came back and said they were shocked they had to bring a clear plastic bag. And they were like, “This is the symphony,” right? So do you see more venues that are not the traditional big stadium shows and things like that starting to adapt to this and putting up the metal detectors or doing more of these kinds of smaller security measures?

ADELMAN: Yes. And there are good reasons for that. Again, the theater part counts. Making people feel safe matters. And also the equipment is much more common, more readily available, and venues may as well use it. So having people bring a clear bag in means that bag check — which is quite common now at all kinds of public accommodations — doing bag check’s a lot faster if you don't have to open up every person’s purse or hand-carried item. The line moves faster this way.

On writing the book on event security

ADELMAN: Well, first, I wrote these standards with lots of other smart people. I was the principal scrivener. So let's give credit to smart friends. But really, it’s reliance on any one security measure is destined to fail. So the way we talk about risk, there’s a fun example. It's called the Swiss cheese model. And without going into detail, the Swiss cheese model basically says that in order for there to be any kind of real disaster or catastrophe, lots of things have to fail, all in conjunction with each other.

That's a useful piece of information. And my research very much agrees with that, because it means if it takes a lot of failures to yield a catastrophe, that means any one success breaks the chain of causation. And then you don’t have a catastrophe. You just have a bunch of failures that didn’t add up to anything. And we call that a near-miss.

And near-misses are happy things because people fail. To err is human. We make mistakes all the time. And mass gatherings are complicated. People innocently or perhaps willfully try to bend the rules. And failure at some level is going to happen at every event. The goal is to not have catastrophe. So breaking the chain of causation by doing anything good is a significant win.

So I personally don't have a lot of preference between clear bag policies versus walk-through magnetometers versus hand wands versus uniformed security guards backed up by off-duty law enforcement. I care about lighting. I care about signage. I care about the presence of guest services people helping folks know exactly what they should bring when they queue up to enter a venue so they don’t bring the wrong thing.

All of these elements work together because any success breaks the chain of possible failures. And that means we have an event where everything goes just fine.

On the future of security

ADELMAN: Honestly, what I look for in the near future is better use of the technology that already exists. Teaching people to use their existing tools. That's generally my short term goal.

Longer term, I am interested in facial recognition technology, if only because we get to see it used in a positive way in many large cities — and in a not so positive way. So the ground is shifting under our feet all the time, and it's fascinating to see the new uses of existing technology, as well as the development of new technologies such as artificial intelligence. And we don't know if that's going to be good, bad or indifferent. We just know it's not going to be the same a year from now as it is today.

More stories from KJZZ

BusinessThe ShowLaw Enforcement Retail + Consumer