Protecting the Super Bowl: Tampa Fire Rescue

Those who have not hosted a Super Bowl may tell you, "It's just a football game." But ask anyone in a community that has hosted America's unofficial holiday, the Super Bowl, and they will tell you it's a planning-intensive, security-driven super event.

When a community hosts the Super Bowl, the football game is just one consideration. There are many high-profile events throughout the community that attract large numbers of people. Some are high-price, exclusive-access events for celebrities, athletes and entertainers. Other events are held more for the community and families such as the NFL Experience (NFL-X), a carnival-like football interactive attraction.

The last time Tampa, FL, hosted a Super Bowl was in January 2001. There was a significant security presence in 2001, but nothing that compares with the magnitude of a post-9/11 Super Bowl. Working within the demands for heightened security, Tampa Fire Rescue worked for two years gearing up to provide fire suppression, fire prevention, EMS and hazardous materials protection and response plans for Super Bowl XLIII. This premiere American sports event was hosted by Tampa for the fourth time on Feb. 1, 2009.

In addition to providing fire-EMS and hazmat emergency response, Tampa Fire Rescue divisions include the City Emergency Management office and the Fire Marshal's Office. During the months leading up to the Super Bowl, the Fire Marshal's Office worked continuously with builders, developers and event planners who were looking forward to providing venues for activities to entertain all the visitors who would flock to the big game. The work demands increased significantly during the weeks leading up to the game, as requests for temporary permits, large-tent permits and place-of-assembly permits flooded in.

The plans included significant changes to Raymond James Stadium, the site of the game. Most significant was the opening of undeveloped spaces that were walled off and not generally used. These spaces, on the ground-floor service level, were not equipped with alarms or fire sprinklers. The stadium wanted to open these areas for several uses. One area was to be temporary office space, the other to be filled with pipes and draping for media interviews after the game. Working closely with the contractor, a plan was crafted to open additional exits, extend a temporary fire alarm, minimize fire load and test the fire pump to ensure that "needed fire flow" could be provided with the existing system. Additionally, trained fire-watch personnel were stationed near the areas at all times and additional fire protection was provided on site. After the game, these areas were to be walled up again.

Another challenge faced by the Fire Marshal's Office was ensuring that the major clubs and other party venues throughout the city kept conditions safe for their patrons. Many clubs that had been on the drawing board for years hurried their construction plans to open in time to host Super Bowl events. As the date of the game drew near, fire inspectors working in teams of two, for officer safety, went into the entertainment districts late in the evening to ensure that fire- and life-safety standards were being maintained. The inspectors' stated goal was to look for obvious safety issues such as overcrowding, blocked exits and alarm system problems. Inspectors have the authority to address problems quickly and make immediate corrections, including, if necessary, removing some or all of the patrons from the venue.

In the days leading up to the Super Bowl, inspectors visited several dozen businesses during peak operating hours. Downtown, one high-end nightclub under construction held a party the weekend before the game, and before obtaining a certificate of occupancy (CO). Fire inspectors had no choice but to close the club until it complied with local building codes. The club quickly addressed all concerns and obtained a CO in time for its next scheduled party mid-week.

An entertainment establishment across town, many miles from the stadium, had let a promoter schedule parties at its location, but the promoter did not file for needed permits. On Saturday, the evening before the game, the promoter simply put up a large fence that restricted egress and fire department access and let the party start. By the time police and the Fire Marshal's Office got wind of it, a significant crowd had gathered. Eventually, the party was shut down and the partygoers moved on. The next day, game day, the fence was down and the venue was allowed to reopen under its existing assembly permit.

Celebrations associated with Super Bowl week involved an area far beyond the borders of the city and involved communities in the Tampa Bay metropolitan area. To protect all the activities, several branches under a unified command would need to be interconnected for continuity of control over the events. Tampa Fire Rescue uses a video teleconferencing system to connect chief officers as they plan daily staffing for the department. To enhance communications during Super Bowl week, equipment from the video teleconferencing system was moved to the branches. A unified command post, joint operations center, emergency operations center, marine operations branch, downtown branch, stadium branch and team hotel area branch (Westshore Branch) were tied together with the video teleconferencing. During Super Bowl week, the command sites held twice-daily briefings through the system. Had a major unplanned event occurred in one or more of the branches, resources could have been requested and reassigned quickly with the benefit of virtual face-to-face communication.

In and around the stadium, most of the planning involved providing security for the game. During the build-out week, Tampa Fire Rescue maintained a two-person medical crew on site. The fire marshal also made sure he had four inspectors on site each day to help the contractors work through any issues or problems that might arise. The Tampa Fire Rescue Hazardous Materials Team set up an MSA SafeSite system to monitor for and detect several potential threats, including chemical warfare agents, toxic industrial chemicals and gamma radiation.

As game day approached, the security area around the stadium tightened. No person, uniformed or not, could enter the secure perimeter without credentials issued by law enforcement agencies. No vehicle could enter without being searched or examined by the x-ray of a Vehicle and Cargo Inspection System (VACIS). Positioned inside the secure perimeter were several fire combat vehicles including one fire truck, two tanker trucks and two small Kubota utility vehicles outfitted with Kimtek Firelite firefighting units. These skid-mounted units carry 75 gallons of water, five gallons of foam, a reel with 150 feet of one-inch hose and a small engine to act as a pump. The aluminum unit is also fabricated with an area that can carry a Stokes basket.

During the week leading up to Super Bowl, the NFL Experience (NFL-X) was opened in a large parking area south of the stadium. Over 20,000 people a day attended the attraction. It was the NFL-X that would provide Tampa Fire with an opportunity to test the response plans. Grease in a trailer-mounted LPG rotisserie cooker just outside of a concession tent caught fire. The fire spread from the cooker to some nearby boxes and then to the tent. Tampa Fire Chief Dennis Jones was in the area when the fire broke out. He quickly grabbed a portable extinguisher and knocked down the flames. Within minutes, a Kubota with a fire-suppression unit and an inspector on fire watch were on scene. The two firefighters kept the flames in check until a tanker truck arrived and completed the extinguishment. The inspector tended to two minor smoke-inhalation patients who had been working in the tent. From this small fire, responders confirmed the units stationed within the secured stadium footprint could respond quickly to maintain a situation. This response also confirmed that units in the neighborhoods surrounding the stadium could, with assistance of security personnel, quickly access the secure area and deal with an emergency.

On game day, security around the stadium was enhanced. An extended hard barrier of several blocks surrounded the stadium and the nearby NFL-X and Tailgate Party. To accommodate the heightened security measures, medical staffing in the stadium area was increased. With the weather cooperating by providing clear skies and warm temperatures, fans began flooding into the area well before game time. Personnel in the first-aid tents stayed busy throughout the day. Most of the problems were minor and treated quickly. By the time the stadium opened for the fans to enter and find their seats for the Super Bowl, dozens of fans had been seen by the medical staff.

The first true medical emergency occurred at the beginning of the game. Paramedics responded to a middle-aged man who was not feeling well. As to be expected, the sickest person in the stadium was in one of the highest tiers of seats in the massive stadium. A quick evaluation indicated the man was suffering a myocardial infarction. While providing ALS care, paramedics in the stadium worked the man down to the main first-aid station. From there, the man was transported on a cart out to the perimeter of the stadium, where an ALS unit transported him to a hospital about a mile away. The man was treated with cardiac catheterization and is now doing well. Through the evening, medics transported nine patients from the stadium to local hospitals. A typical NFL game at the stadium would result in one or two transports.

Fire inspectors kept a check on the many fireworks displays being used on the field and around the stadium. Inspectors also made sure that fire codes were maintained and quickly responded to any alarms in the stadium. Firefighters stationed with the combat units stayed quiet most of the evening and the Hazardous Materials Team kept a check on air-monitoring equipment.

Just down the road from the stadium in a vacant aircraft hangar, the Tactical Operations Center (TOC) was established. The TOC held units that were to be the first responders into the stadium should a significant event occur. The TOC housed a large reserve of law enforcement, fire, urban search and rescue (USAR) and federal resources. Fortunately, none of these resources had to respond.

Two years of planning and coordinated efforts by local, state and federal agencies produced a seamless and safe experience for fans and the teams. For the safety of future Super Bowls, many of the plans and experiences must be kept confidential. Lessons learned at this Super Bowl will not go to waste, as information is shared with future host cities. When a city is awarded the Super Bowl, one responsibility of the local host committee is to ensure that public safety officials travel to game-related sites in the year or two before the game. When the Phoenix, AZ, area hosted the Super Bowl in 2008, Tampa public safety officials were on hand to see the operation. Days before Tampa hosted the game, public safety officials from future host cities — Miami, FL, Arlington, TX, and Indianapolis, IN — were in town to observe and learn. The information they picked up, first hand, will benefit their communities as they prepare to be the center of attention at upcoming Super Bowls.

BILL WADE is a captain and spokesperson for Tampa, FL, Fire Rescue and has been in the fire and emergency medical services since 1973. He has been a firefighter, paramedic, tactical medic and hazardous materials technician. Wade has a bachelor's degree in education from the University of South Florida and is certified as a Florida Professional Emergency Manager.