Two years ago, the Republican National Committee made an exciting announcement for the city of Cleveland: it would host the 2016 Republican National Convention (RNC), narrowly edging out Dallas.
“Cleveland is a phenomenal city, and I can’t think of a better place to showcase our party and our nominee in 2016,” said RNC Chairwoman Enid Mickelsen in a statement. “I’m confident Cleveland is the right pick for our national convention. Cleveland has demonstrated they have the commitment, energy, and terrific facilities to help us deliver a history-making Republican convention.”
One of the facilities that the committee would lean on heavily was my own: the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame and Museum. The Rock Hall opened in 1995 and has since welcomed more than 10 million visitors from around the globe, with 500,000 visitors in 2015 alone.
The Rock Hall also has a major physical footprint in Cleveland. The 150,000-square-foot building with 55,000 square feet of exhibition space on seven floors has a 162-foot tower that overlooks Lake Erie. It also features a 65,000-square-foot outdoor plaza that’s often used as a community gathering place and an outdoor concert venue.
To make the most of these features, the RNC planned to host its Welcome Event in and around the Rock Hall. This would be a major opportunity—and challenge—for our team.
As a host of a major event for the RNC, the Rock Hall would be part of the RNC’s National Special Security Event (NSSE) planning, preparation, and security restrictions. This meant that we would be interacting with federal, state, and local law enforcement, and other emergency response agencies, such as the U.S. Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA).
The Secret Service is responsible for the planning and security during an NSSE. It uses a committee structure that divides the responsibility for the planning into more than 12 different committees. Each committee is headed by a Secret Service special agent and a subject-matter expert.
The Rock Hall was part of the RNC Business Impact Committee, which began meeting in October 2015 on a monthly basis. As we drew closer to the RNC, the committee began meeting on a bi-weekly basis.
One of the two special agents charged with leading the Secret Service team was present at each committee meeting. While the meetings provided much needed information, the main benefit of the gatherings was rumor control.
The agents were incredibly open about their plans when they were able to be and acknowledged when they could not be. If they said something was true, we believed them—and they were able to quash many rumors.
The agents also answered every question that was asked of them, and they spent time after the meetings speaking with people who had additional questions. This openness led to a level of trust between the people attending the meetings and the Secret Service, making the process of preparing for the RNC much easier.
In addition to the meetings with the Secret Service, the Rock Hall also attended meetings hosted by the U.S. Coast Guard, the U.S. Department of Homeland Security, and FEMA.
The Rock Hall also began to have planning meetings on a regular basis to prepare for the RNC. During these meetings, we discussed and coordinated the efforts of the many different departments involved in the event.
By the end of the process, we had a coordinated and coherent understanding of what we would be doing at the Rock Hall, including every department’s role in the overall security plan.
Between October 2015 and the start of the RNC in July 2016, we spent almost 80 hours touring the Rock Hall, reviewing procedures, answering questions, and sweeping the building—including a sweep the night before the Welcome Event in coordination with various federal, state, and local agencies.
One of the main lessons we learned early in this process was the need to be flexible. Almost every contact we had with outside agencies led to a need to revise some part of our security plan.
In fact, one of the representatives of an outside agency said its unofficial motto was “He who plans first, plans twice.” In response, every time we briefed another agency on our security plan or discussed what our plans were, I would say, “At the present time, this is the plan.”
A change that was made to improve this process was putting one of the Rock Hall staff members in the FBI command post during the RNC. This benefitted the FBI because the Bureau had someone who could answer questions about the Rock Hall, and it provided us with quick access to information.
Designing the Plan
We began designing the security plan for the RNC shortly after the announcement in 2014 that Cleveland would be the host city and we learned more about what would occur at the Rock Hall during the RNC.
Acquiring this information was a crucial process because we would be hosting more than 25 events at the hall during the four days of the convention, in addition to the Welcome Event.
While gathering this information, we also began writing our security plan using existing plans as a starting point. In many cases, the current procedures did not need to be changed, but others called for alterations.
One change we knew we would have to make was to our bag checks and wanding policy. Normally, the Rock Hall does not do bag checks or wanding of visitors, unless there is a credible security threat. Because the whole RNC was under a credible security threat, we knew we would need to set up entry control points to screen every visitor.
We drafted an initial plan, but quickly learned that we would be making almost weekly changes as new information was brought to our attention by the committee and the various agencies we were working with.
For instance, we did not know that the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) would be installing air monitoring equipment at the Rock Hall for the duration of the RNC. Because the agency would be on site, we had to find acceptable locations for its equipment monitors and then brief the staff on what they were and where they were placed—to prevent staff from finding the equipment and assuming it was something dangerous.
One of the early decisions made in our security plan was to use a barrier at the edge of the exterior plaza of the Rock Hall. However, it was important that the barrier did not make the Rock Hall seem uninviting.
To prevent this perception, we decided to use bike racks as barriers—such barriers are often used at concerts and served as a reminder that the Rock Hall is all about music. The bike-rack barriers were also covered with a branded banner wrap to convey our openness to visitors.
The barrier was designed to have three entry control points for visitors and one entry control point at the staff entrance to the hall. The general plan was that the public would use one of the entry control points and invited guests attending events would use the other two entry control points.
Most of these guests were participating in the RNC in some manner, and would arrive by bus. Being able to process these guests through the entry control points was one of our biggest concerns. The RNC was scheduled down to the minute for those attending, so several hundred people would be arriving all at once with a limited time for screening.
Because of this, we pushed the screening operation out to the very edge of the Rock Hall’s footprint. The screening would be conducted by a local, contracted security company, which also provided additional security officers to patrol the exterior of the hall and the parking lot.
Staff members were also screened as they arrived at work using the employee entrance. This included the many additional staff members who were contracted to help during the RNC.
To assist in rapidly screening guests and workers, we planned to reassign the exterior patrol security officers to the entry points of the hall to help during surge arrival times. (This plan worked as we hoped, and our guests were processed through the entry control quickly. The maximum wait time to be screened was five minutes.)
After several months of writing, reviewing, and making changes as needed, we were confident that we had enough relevant information to begin the formal internal review process of our security plan. The plan was reviewed by representatives from several of the hall’s departments, including the vice presidents, our president, and our CEO.
The RNC could potentially involve anything from violent protests to a mass casualty event, so all Rock Hall staff needed to be prepared to respond should a crisis occur.
Security staff. The first thing we did to prepare staff was increase the training all staff received, especially security staff. Security staff would begin receiving daily training on topics that would be repeated regularly.
We selected 90 different topics that would be repeated a minimum of four times per year to help staff retain information without becoming bored or tuning it out. The topics chosen included dealing with protestors, disaster prevention, first aid response, service animals in places of business, active shooter threats, the National Terrorism Advisory System, blood-borne pathogens, and Chemical, Biological, Radiological, Nuclear, and Explosives (CBRNE) threats and responses.
These topics were covered during the daily security briefing conducted every morning before the Rock Hall was opened to the public. The topics were designed to be short enough so that each item would be covered in five to 10 minutes. This included time for the security officers to discuss the topics and to suggest updates or changes. Because of this process, several topics were added to the training list, such as responding to mass casualty events.
Competency training. Competency training checklists were designed and used for initial training for new staff and as a refresher for existing staff. Required security procedures were reduced to their step-by-step components, and checklists were created for each task.
Before we began using the checklists, the topics were reviewed with the senior security officers to ensure that we included all of the steps in the tasks. The checklists guided the initial training.
A new security officer would begin training with a senior security officer. The senior officer would use the competency checklist for an assigned task to train the new officer. The new officer would then complete the acknowledgement sheet as he or she completed the training.
The new officer kept the checklist as a reference for further training and development. The acknowledgement sheet would then be used as a record to demonstrate that he or she was trained in the assigned tasks.
The checklists were also used as a refresher training tool with each security officer required to complete refresher training each quarter.
Monthly meetings. Beginning in November 2015, security managers held monthly training meetings with the security staff.
During these 90-minute meetings, a single topic was presented to the security staff. Topics included active shooters; protests; the overall security plan; what to expect during the RNC; interactions with federal, state, and local law enforcement and other agencies; competency training checklists; and the NSSE and its expected role.
General staff training. We also conducted training for the entire Rock Hall staff. This included training on emergency procedures, evacuations, and active shooter events.
During the training, the museum’s emergency procedures were discussed and reviewed with the staff.
Staff members were walked through the building to show them all of the emergency exits that would be used if we needed to evacuate the building. The staff was instructed to use the nearest, safest, and quickest route out of the building, while bringing other staff and visitors with them as they evacuated.
During the active shooter drills, the staff was trained on the U.S. Department of Homeland Security’s “Run. Hide. Fight.” method for responding to an active shooter. We conducted two drills to train staff.
In the first drill, the Rock Hall administrative staff was trained with the visitor engagement staff acting as visitors who had to be guided through an active shooter event. This drill was conducted in the administrative offices of the hall.
The second drill was the reverse of the first, with visitor engagement staff guiding administrative staff members acting as visitors. This time, the drill was conducted in the public areas of the Rock Hall.
Once the drills were conducted, the results were reviewed to validate the Rock Hall’s plan for responding to an active shooter. Plans were also made to hold more drills in the future.
The best result from the drills was that it prompted people to think about what could happen and how they would respond to it. During each of the drills, discussions were held among staff members that helped prepare them for an active shooter. Staff members also realized that the ideas they were discussing could be used outside of the Rock Hall in their day-to-day lives.
The RNC would require more security staff than are normally scheduled at the Rock Hall at any one time. To address this need, we took two steps.
The first was to schedule additional security officers to be on site using an outside contract agency. This group of approximately 18 officers would operate the entry control points and patrol the exterior portions of the Rock Hall.
The second step was to schedule our in-house Rock Hall security staff on 12-hour shifts. This allowed us to maximize the number of Rock Hall security officers available at all times.
Additionally, we hired seven seasonal security staff members in May 2016, which gave us 11 weeks to train them so they would be a useful addition to our team when the RNC began in July.
The Welcome Party
The Welcome Party is the first official event of the RNC. The plan was to hold it at the Rock Hall, the Great Lakes Science Center, and Voinovich Park. The RNC Host Committee would host the event, with an expected 10,000 people in attendance.
The preparations for this event began in December 2015 and a Secret Service special agent was assigned to manage the planning and security. It was extremely beneficial that we got to know our agent and developed a close working relationship with him. This allowed us to understand what he was trying to accomplish while also conveying to him what our normal operations were like.
The agent needed to have as complete a picture of what the Rock Hall does as possible. And once he understood our procedures, he designed his security plan to have minimal impact while still meeting his security requirements.
The Secret Service’s security sweep was an example of this. The original plan was to conduct the sweep all at once using a limited number of people. However, the agency failed to consider the size and complexity of the Rock Hall.
After gaining a better understanding of the size and scope of the facility, the Secret Service decided to sweep some areas—such as the vending machines—earlier in the week before the RNC. Conducting the sweep all at once required too many individuals to be involved, and opening the machines the night before the RNC would have interfered with the Secret Service’s requirement to limit the number of people in the building during the sweep.
During the RNC
During the RNC, the Rock Hall hosted more than 25 parties, ranging from small groups of 25 to 50 people to large parties of more than 1,500 people. Our operations began as early as 8:00 a.m. and ran as late as 2:00 a.m.
During the day, our operations were very similar to our normal day-to-day activities, except for the volume of visitors and number of events we were hosting. To handle the crowds that would arrive early and hang out in the exterior plaza, screening locations were activated an hour before we opened the doors.
Media visits were also well above average during the RNC—1,200 credentialed media from more than 12 countries were on site. In response, the media relations staff set up and manned a media check-in desk inside of the Rock Hall’s main entrance and outlined preapproved stations for filming.
The security staff expedited the screening process—bag checks and wanding—for media by combining it with their check-in and identification process. This arrangement allowed us to meet the needs of the media, while at the same time managing the flow of media visitors and minimizing their footprint.
Our security plan was effective in guiding our activities during the RNC, and we only had one incident that the plan did not address.
On the morning of the second day of the RNC, protestors struck the Rock Hall in an unexpected manner. Two protestors climbed the flag poles on the outer edge of the property and hung a banner that read “Don’t Trump our communities” between them. This was not a scenario that we had predicted.
However, the staff followed the security plan. When it became aware of the protestors, staff responded to the location and asked them to stop what they were doing. When the protestors refused, security staff called the Cleveland Police Department (CPD) and requested assistance.
CPD arrived quickly and took charge of the scene. They also asked the protestors to come down from their perches, and when they refused the CPD called for the Cleveland Fire Department.
The protestors did not come down when the fire department arrived, and the two departments decided to allow the protestors to remain on the flag poles as long as they wanted. If they had tried to bring the protestors down, it could have led to a dangerous situation for both the CPD and the protestors.
Once the protestors were back on the ground, CPD arrested them for criminal mischief. No one was hurt, no property was damaged, and the staff responded appropriately to an unexpected scenario.
Lessons learned. The RNC experience taught the Rock Hall staff a variety of lessons, including that planning ensures success. We took the time to think about the overall event, what would happen, and what our role would be.
We then thought about the possible changes to our normal procedures, what could go wrong, and what our response to those wrongs would be. We spent several months drafting our security plan and then spent more time making changes as needed.
We learned that training tops events. If you take the time to train staff and reinforce that training in a positive manner, staff members will perform as needed—no matter what happens. Every minute spent preparing our staff was an investment that paid off during the event.
Being flexible was also key to our success. We had to be ready and able to change aspects of our security plan as needed. The plan was important, but being able to adapt as events occurred was essential to our success.
Information gathering was also necessary for the successful outcome of the RNC. Not all meetings provided us with the information we needed. In fact, some meetings we attended were not as helpful as we had hoped they would be.
We also learned to ask for help when we needed it. You can’t plan and execute an event like a political convention without assistance. Some of the most helpful people during this process were people we would not have expected to provide information or assistance.
For example, the Secret Service was considerably more helpful than we initially expected it to be. Once we developed a relationship with our contact agents, we were able to talk to them and reach out for help when we needed it, knowing they would respond.
This was also true of internal groups within the Rock Hall. While planning for the RNC, we were able to draw on the relationships that the security team had fostered and developed over the years.
Hosting the RNC was a great opportunity for the city of Cleveland and the Rock Hall. Through careful planning, effective communication, and the ability to adapt as the security situation changed, the Rock Hall helped ensure that the event was successful and safe.
Paul j. Steiner, JR., CPP, is the security manager at the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and Museum. He is a member of the Cleveland Chapter of ASIS International.