Securing the Super Bowl

Location data is instrumental in securing America’s largest sporting event


On Feb. 2, millions of viewers watched the Seattle Seahawks dominate the Denver Broncos at MetLife Stadium in East Rutherford, N.J. While football fans cheered on their favored team, laughed at commercials, enjoyed the halftime show, and dined on chili and nachos, most were unaware of the flurry of activity occurring behind the scenes to ensure the security of the event.

“Effective homeland security requires coordinating across the entire spectrum of the nation—federal, state, and local governments, private sector and community organizations, academia, the research and development industry, and citizens,” said David Alexander, director of the Department of Homeland Security’s (DHS) Geospatial Management Office.

To secure Super Bowl XLVIII, the New Jersey State Police (NJSP) led a security operation that encompassed more than 50 local, state, and federal organizations, as well as thousands of first responders. The effort, of which geospatial intelligence was a core element, was intended not only to keep spectators and athletes safe during the actual Super Bowl, but also throughout the week leading up to the big game.

“GEOINT played a major role in securing Super Bowl XLVIII by providing the respective incident command elements a dimension of perspective that cannot be achieved through text documents of situational awareness,” said Sgt. 1st Class Chris DeMaise, NJSP special operations. “Geospatial technology provided real-time situational awareness ‘on the map’ while Super Bowl security operations were ongoing, and systems such as these are invaluable to homeland security operations.”

With the uniquely challenging and populous location of Super Bowl XLVIII—with the stadium in New Jersey and pre-game events and mass transit crossing over into New York City—geospatial technology played a critical role in helping NJSP and decision-makers detect and respond to incidents quickly and efficiently.

In addition to concentrating on the football stadium, security was positioned at team hotels and practice fields, buses, subways, ferries, and “Super Bowl Boulevard,” where the 312 pre-Super Bowl events took place on Broadway in Manhattan. With an event of this scale, a strategically planned operation across all levels of public safety stakeholders was critical to protect citizens, and GEOINT was essential in this coordination.

Needles in a Haystack

The NJSP was introduced to the application of geospatial technology to secure sporting events during the 2012 Super Bowl XLVI in Indianapolis, Ind. Digital Sandbox, a software company that specialized in threat, risk analysis, and monitoring, applied its technology in Indianapolis and was deemed successful.

“We knew we had to have this technology at our game,” DeMaise said. “It took a long time to procure and there were many hurdles we had to cross, but we were able to complete the process for New Jersey by October 2013.”

Watchboard was used by 737 public safety representatives, including those from the New Jersey State Police, New York State Police, DHS, and FBI, to secure Super Bowl XLVIII. Image courtesy of Haystax

The NJSP sought assistance from Haystax Technology, an analytics company that in 2013 had acquired Digital Sandbox along with cloud computing company FlexPoint Technology. Haystax’s core product, the Public Safety Cloud, combines streams of raw data and enables officials to monitor and prevent potential safety threats. Public Safety Cloud has been deployed at events such as the Emmys, Indy 500, America’s Cup, Chicago Marathon, political party conventions, and more.

“Because of the density and how [events were] spread across New Jersey and parts of Manhattan, there was a lot of diversity in the number of agencies, as well as big attention on mass transit,” said Anthony Beverina, president for the public safety and commercial sectors with Haystax Technology.

The NJSP stood up the NJSP Public Safety Compound, positioned directly across from MetLife Stadium, to serve as the nucleus for all intelligence organizations and agencies to collaborate throughout Super Bowl XLVIII. Haystax’s WatchBoard, a geospatial environment where channels of data are monitored then rendered on a map by order of priority, was set up on a large screen at the front and center of the compound to display information from Public Safety Cloud.

Using WatchBoard, more than 600 data feeds—including data from the DHS Geospatial Information Infrastructure and Common Operating Picture application—were monitored by 737 total users, most of which represented the NJSP, DHS, FBI, and New York State Police.

“Integrating and unifying operations ensured decision-makers at all levels were making time-sensitive decisions off a common set of geospatial information, which is absolutely critical with an event like the Super Bowl,” said David Lilley of the DHS Geospatial Management Office.

The large-scale visualization allowed decision-makers to view incidents as they were reported in real time. While multiple agencies inputted infrastructure and mass transit data through the Public Safety Cloud, WatchBoard also displayed feeds that monitored news, social media, video, public safety dispatch, and radiation sensors.

“It’s difficult for commanders to look at paper maps and determine how to allocate resources without having a good image of what’s going on in the ‘battlefield,’” said DeMaise. “Being able to see the map and the data flowing in was a tremendous value, and we had an overwhelmingly, positive reaction to it.”

Personnel stationed at various locations in New Jersey and New York City were able to download the Mobile Command app on their smartphones and tablets. NJSP in the field used the app to enter incidents, snap geotagged pictures, and upload reports directly to WatchBoard, while their commanders instantaneously viewed the information from the Public Safety Compound.

Federal agencies were able to feed data to WatchBoard using communications interoperability and resource-sharing provider Mutualink, which assisted in bridging data incompatible with WatchBoard.

“There’s a good partnership between federal and local levels,” said Lisa Spuria, director of NGA’s Analysis and Production Directorate. “Geospatial technology has really taken off in the last few years and acts as a good, common reference for everyone … It helps bring teams together because they are working from the same sheet of music to integrate and help execute the overall mission.”

As a result of such collaboration, security officials using the Public Safety Cloud were able to report and respond to 345 incidents of suspicious persons and packages and social media threats, in addition to 10 major incidents, one of which included suspicious white powder mailed to hotels located near the stadium. These incidents were reported at a much faster rate than previous Super Bowls, according to Beverina.

“Our role is to set the table for [security officials] and then they spring into action to clear the problem—it was a very impressive operation,” Beverina said.

The New York City Fire Department (FDNY) supported roughly 150 special events in 2013, but in 2014 the Super Bowl marked the first such event in which the department made the leap from paper maps to web and mobile apps. The FDNY GIS Unit collaborated with PenBay Solutions, provider of InVision Secure software, to create and roll out a new event management system to support Super Bowl planning and operations.

The FDNY/InVision Secure Super Bowl Web Map utilized Esri’s ArcGIS Online platform and offered planning and operations capabilities in a user-friendly manner. The FDNY uploaded building floor plans, pre-incident guidelines, subway and bus stations, video feeds, and boundaries for each event on “Super Bowl Boulevard,” as well as other critical information necessary to secure the overall metro area.

“[Geospatial technology is] a valuable tool in aiding us to provide situational awareness, so we can deploy the right resources to understand what’s going on, when it’s going on, and where it’s going on … It really opened my eyes to a world of possibilities,” said FDNY Chief Information Officer Joel Golub. “We think there’s value here and we want to explore it more.”

The FDNY web map was also available in the form of a mobile app for field personnel. Similar to WatchBoard, FDNY’s mobile app allowed 154 users to report incidents and take geotagged photos. Fifteen organizations used FDNY’s web map and app, including the FDNY Incident Management Team, the New York City Police Department, DHS, and FBI.

“The web map supported the mission of data sharing with other agencies and made it so everyone was on the same page and combining points on the map,” said FDNY Capt. Steve Pollackov, commanding officer of the department’s GIS unit. “This gave us a nice platform to pull it all together and see the same data.”

Detecting Interference

Another important element in keeping athletes and attendees safe was the prevention of GPS jamming. While jamming is commonly used for stealing cars or shipping containers tagged with GPS locators, it could also be used to interfere with technology used by public safety officials, according to Carl Slutsky, Exelis Signal Sentry product manager. For this reason, Exelis deployed its new Signal Sentry product at Super Bowl XLVIII to report any disruption of GPS signals.

Exelis’ Signal Sentry 1000 detects, geolocates, and characterizes sources of intentional and unintentional interference to U.S. GPS signals. Exelis collaborated with the Super Bowl Communications Committee in conjunction with DHS to strategically place eight sensors around the football stadium to capture any interference and report back to Exelis’ cloud computing environment.

“From the time a jammer is turned on and we geolocate the source, it only takes three seconds,” said Slutsky. “It gives us time to deploy resources to address the jamming.”

Though Exelis could not disclose the number of reported jamming incidents at the Super Bowl, Slutsky said its first run with Signal Sentry was a success and the company plans to deploy it for future national security events.

The Future for Law Enforcement

The success of geospatial applications at Super Bowl XLVIII demonstrated even more ways GEOINT and GIS can help law enforcement act more quickly and efficiently when responding to emergencies.

“The operation and information sharing went well and the data was easily useable,” Spuria said. “Geospatial technology has matured and evolved over the years, and NGA had a lot of practice with domestic events to get the data organized and know what people want and what their challenges are to help them plan.”

Despite the mass advancement of technology used at national security-level events and for those on the horizon, the mission of protecting citizens continues to remain unchanged, reiterated Golub.

“In the end, [the FDNY] mission is to save lives and protect the safety of our members, and technology is supporting that mission,” Golub said. “Down the road we are hoping [geospatial] technology can help aid us further in search and rescue operations, large-scale response, and enhance that life-saving mission—that’s our goal moving forward.”

But with the increasing amount of technology and Big Data comes the need for heightened levels of information security.

“Security is a major concern these days,” said Joe Mazzarella, senior vice president and chief legal counsel of Mutualink. “Communications have to be protected and encrypted because you don’t want that sensitive information in the wrong hands.”

Having evolved from paper maps to location-based apps, geospatial technology has transformed daily activities to be more simple and efficient. Coordinating thousands of security personnel and first responders at the Super Bowl is far from a simple task, but was carried out efficiently and successfully due to the power of collaboration, information sharing, and geospatial intelligence.

Featured image: Lt. Col. Edward Cetnar, Super Bowl XLVIII incident commander, briefs the unified command at the New Jersey State Police Public Safety Compound. 


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