2011 Men's Final Four: Check out coverage

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Publish date: Mar 22, 2011

NCAA, Homeland Security partner in planning a safe Final Four

By Marta Lawrence

Fans attending this year’s March Madness games will be greeted by a video of Department of Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano and NCAA President Mark Emmert encouraging them to “say something” if they see suspicious activities. 

The video, which will also appear at most other winter championship events, is part of a national campaign sponsored by Homeland Security to raise citizen awareness in high-profile environments such as major events and public transit.

Security at the games has always been a priority for the NCAA, but the rapid growth of the Final Four in recent years has prompted the Association to assess security practices even more closely and to scale procedures to fit the constantly evolving environment.

Khalil Johnson.

“We’re building on a base that was very, very stable,” said NCAA security expert Khalil Johnson of Common Sense Consultants.

Johnson and his team have worked closely with Houston’s local organizing committee and the Division I men’s basketball staff planning the logistics for the games, which include transportation, crowd control, operations and venue security. Integrating safety and security into all aspects of the event means a better fan experience and a more secure experience overall, Johnson said.

“We believe we’re creating best practices that can act as a model for future events,” says NCAA Interim Executive Vice President for Championships and Alliances Greg Shaheen. “The lessons learned from Houston will help inform planning for the 2012 games at the Louisiana Superdome in New Orleans.”

A public safety committee for the Men’s Final Four included representatives from local emergency management agencies; the local organizing committee; and city, county and federal law enforcement. The committee’s work culminated in several recent exercises led by the FBI that addressed various scenarios from the lights going out to a multiple-causality incident.

“We make sure that the experts who do it and do it every day are involved in the planning of the Final Four,” Johnson said.

Department of Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano and NCAA President Mark Emmert speak at a press conference. Photo by: DHS.

Team security was another major issue. “We will do some things this year to make sure we have a full awareness of where our student-athletes are, where their coaches are, how they’re doing, what they’re doing, everywhere they are from the time they hit Houston to the time they leave,” Johnson said.

A full site inspection and security assessment has been done on each potential team hotel. The NCAA has worked closely with those hotels to ensure they meet all safety and security expectations. Teams will also be accompanied by security professionals as they attend Final Four events.

When fans arrive at Reliant Park, they will be funneled through an expanded perimeter, increasing the distance between the entry point and the facility. Although Johnson would not comment on specific security screening practices, he said they will be similar to those used for NFL games.

In addition to retaining security professionals, the NCAA has hired crowd-management experts to make sure traffic in and around the stadium is effective and efficient. Those experts have worked closely with the staff at Reliant Park, which is accustomed to large events.

Reliant Park is not located near hotel complexes that allow fans to walk to and from the venue. To aid traffic flow, a tip-off party is planned in the parking lot before the games.

“We’re excited by the opportunity to host a tip-off party for our fans and believe it will help set the tone for the games while reducing traffic congestion on the roads leading to Reliant Park,” Shaheen said.

The planning committee has worked closely with the public works offices, including the U.S. Department of Transportation, to address traffic flow in and around the facility. A traffic plan has been integrated into the overall security plan to “allow us to better manage the entire site,” Johnson said.

Communication among the various groups involved will be key, Johnson said. In addition to constant communication among the various stakeholders, there will be daily briefings for all staff working inside the building.

“The level of information about what’s going on in and around Reliant Park will be staggering,” Johnson said.

In the end, said Johnson, “most of the things that relate to the fan’s experience from a safety standpoint, they won’t really be aware of.”

And that’s the way he wants it.