Organizers have to consider numerous threats in ensuring security and safety at high-profile events such as the U.S. Open in Pinehurst.
By Hyun Namkoong
Starting today, hundreds of thousands of fans are slated to descend on the links of the Pinehurst Resort and Country Club to catch a glimpse of their favorite golfers, walk the roughs and trample the flowers.
But the event is more than just a groundskeeper’s nightmare. Hundreds of emergency-preparation personnel, law-enforcement officers and food inspectors will also make their temporary homes in Moore County, striving to prevent all those spectators from injury, fainting in the heat or returning home with a case of food poisoning.
The U.S. Open Men’s and Women’s tournaments being held June 12-15 are among several big events – including the 2012 Democratic National Convention in Charlotte – that North Carolina has attracted in the past few years, and there’s more to the preparation than simply spiffing up downtown. Health officials have been planning for this event for months to ensure that everything goes as smoothly as possible, with no adverse experiences to mar tourist’s memories.
And the U.S. Open isn’t just golf. According to the Department of Homeland Security, it’s a National Special Security Event, as determined by the size of the crowd, the significance of the event and the folks who come.
What that designation means, said Donna Wanucha, a retail-food specialist with State Cooperative Programs and the southern region of the Food and Drug Administration, is that “whoever is coming to this event is someone that Secret Service is interested in protecting.”
And as much as the Secret Service might worry about terrorist attacks and general security, the FDA and other agencies such as police and fire departments are equally concerned about food poisoning and heat exhaustion.
What’s in that chicken?
Surprisingly, one of the top security concerns organizers have to consider is food safety. A worst-case scenario for these events is having thousands of people sick from an improperly prepared or deliberately contaminated chicken salad.
“[Food] is something that terrorists have been looking at for decades,” said Larry Michael, environmental-health section chief in the state Department of Health and Human Services’ Division of Public Health.
“Google ‘al-Qaeda’ and ‘food.’ This is not a new concept.”
The FDA and Secret Service team up to handle “food defense” during all NSSE-designated events.
“So whether it’s [the president] attending, or if it’s Vladimir Putin … we want to be sure we don’t have any food-borne illness outbreaks during the event,” Wanucha said.
Coordinating extensively ahead of time with key stakeholders is critical to ensuring food safety and creating proper emergency-response plans.
“You never want to exchange a business card during an emergency,” Michael said, emphasizing the importance of communicating and preparing for emergencies.
Food-security plans are detailed well in advance and involve monitoring food preparation, kitchen inspections, food sampling and ensuring the personal hygiene of cooks.
Wanucha and Michael worked together preparing for the 2012 Democratic National Convention. That event provided plenty of lessons that will help them better prepare for Pinehurst.
“Inspections were risk-based inspections, focused on the five Centers for Disease Control and Prevention risk factors for food-borne illness,” Wanucha said.
Those factors include food from unsafe sources, inadequate cooking temperatures, improper holding temperatures, contaminated equipment and poor personal hygiene.
During the DNC, inspectors found large quantities of foods – including banana pudding, chicken salad and boiled peanuts – that had been cooked improperly or stored at inadequate temperatures.
“It breaks my heart – but banana pudding,” Michael said. “We had to dispose of banana pudding.”
The FDA sends out teams to randomly sample and inspect food served from vendors at these events.
Wanucha said there was a “SWAT-team approach” to inspecting retail establishments in the vicinity of where convention events were held.
Hot, hot, hot
For a major sporting event such as the U.S. Open, which is held in the summer heat, organizers take heat exhaustion and dehydration seriously.
Temperatures are expected to climb as high as 95 degrees, with humidity up to 65 percent.
“People are going to be out there walking,” said Michael Tew, a lieutenant with the Pinehurst Police Department. “They don’t drink enough water.
“And it can go from, ‘I’m fine,’ to, ‘I don’t feel so good,’ [to] passed out.”
Teams of emergency medical services personnel will be stationed throughout the course on bicycles and golf carts to respond to any medical emergencies.
“It’s getting that quick response from the advanced care of EMS, or even first response like police officers,” Tew said.
This is the third U.S. Open that Pinehurst has hosted.
“This one is running as smooth as any of them ever have,” Tew said.
The Pinehurst police and fire departments and the local EMS team have formed a joint-operations command structure in which the chiefs of the three branches make decisions together on response plans for emergencies.
“Through the joint-operations command, they’ve put a contingency plan in place for almost any threat,” Tew said.
Securing the area
The U.S. Open will draw an estimated crowd of 400,000 to watch top players tee off on the famous Pinehurst No. 2.
“We try to make a plan for every contingency, from somebody looking for their 15 minutes of fame running across the golf course to a bad incident where somebody was actually wanting to hurt someone,” Tew said.
The sleepy village of Pinehurst has no more than 15,000 residents and a police force of fewer than 25 officers.
The police department is working with all levels of law enforcement to secure the event.
“We have to pull together as a team, because we don’t have the manpower in Pinehurst to fulfill all of the necessary security requirements,” Tew said. “We’ve brought in a bunch of outside agencies.”
The joint-operations command is also supported by officers from the State Bureau of Investigation and the FBI, as well as the N.C. State Highway Patrol and almost every police department in Moore County.
“There are hundreds of officers in town,” Tew said.
Preparations involve securing the airspace above the golf course and creating layers of security for entering official areas. Metal detectors are set up at every entrance of the event and concealed weapons are banned.
“Our biggest security measure is the steps we’ve put in place before you enter the compound,” Tew said.
“It’s interesting to watch something this big develop,” he said, “and then come to be a successful event.”