Security 101--What to Expect at the U.S. Presidential Inauguration

National Security

Flickr Photo by Nick V​

Security 101: What to Expect at the U.S. Presidential Inauguration

​Almost 1 million people are estimated to descend on Washington, D.C., on Friday for the inauguration of U.S. President-elect Donald Trump. Many of those individuals are part of 63 groups planning demonstrations at the inauguration, presenting a unique security challenge for the U.S. federal government, D.C. officials, and other stakeholders.

“Anytime you have coming together such large numbers of people, such large numbers of groups that intend to demonstrate and exercise their First Amendment rights, you’ve got to be vigilant; you’ve got to plan; you’ve got to prepare,” said U.S. Department of Homeland Security (DHS) Secretary Jeh Johnson in a press conference. 

This is why the inauguration was designated as a National Special Security Event (NSSE), allowing federal officials to begin crafting a security plan for the event 180 days before it was to take place. 

​The U.S. Secret Service led the planning, working with other federal partners, such as the U.S. Department of Defense and the Federal Emergency Management Agency, and local partners such as the Metropolitan Police Department (MPD)—Washington, D.C.’s local police force.

Given the unique scope of a U.S. presidential inauguration where heads of state and numerous U.S. leaders will be in attendance, along with between 700,000 to 900,000 civilians, there will be an enormous security presence in the nation’s capital. 

Johnson said that approximately 35,800 security personnel will be involved over the course of inauguration weekend—10,000 DHS personnel, 12,000 other federal personnel, 7,800 National Guard personnel, and 6,000 police officers from MPD and other local police departments.

Security Measures for the Inauguration 

On Wednesday at 5 p.m., U.S. Capitol Police will begin closing street access to the Capitol complex and continue closing streets on Thursday at 11 p.m. local time. Streets access is expected to resume at 5 p.m. on Friday, and in the meantime the police are encouraging people to walk or take public transportation.

"Inaugural events attendees are encouraged to use public transportation, as many streets in and around the Capitol Grounds and the National Mall will be closed to private automobiles for much of the day," Capitol Police said in a statement. 

Security personnel will establish two different types of perimeters for the event: soft vehicle perimeters where those who live or work inside the perimeter will be given access, and hard vehicle perimeters where only official vehicles will be allowed to pass through. The hard vehicle perimeter will also be heavily fortified by trucks and dumpsters, “given the current threat environment,” Johnson added.

The Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority​ (WMATA) will open at 4 a.m. on Friday and run through midnight. It plans to run at peak service from 4 a.m. until 9 p.m. that evening to service riders, but the Navy Archives, Federal Triangle, Mount Vernon Plaza, Pentagon, and Smithsonian stations will be closed.

Security personnel will have bag checks and 300 magnetometers set up to screen individuals planning on attending the inauguration festivities.

Washington, D.C., is also a no fly zone​ for unmanned aircraft (drones), and Johnson said security measures have been taken to ensure that no drones are able to fly within the District during the inauguration weekend. 

“Christmas was just a few weeks ago,” Johnson added. “I suspect a lot of people got drones for Christmas…this is something we’ve thought about, we have planned for, and we have technology to deal with it.”

Officials have also issued permits to 99 groups planning to demonstrate on inauguration weekend—63 of which plan to demonstrate on Friday. These permits were issued to help security plan for how it will handle these protesters—such as where protestors will be allowed to demonstrate to ensure that they are not crossing paths with groups that might hold opposing views. 

This helps security personnel ensure that opposing groups do not disrupt the festivities and it helps prevent demonstrations from escalating. Security personnel will also monitor these groups for disruption and to make sure they remain separated, Johnson explained.

There is no specific threat to the inauguration, Johnson said, but security personnel will remain vigilant as the global terrorist environment is very different in 2017 than it was in 2013—the last time an inauguration was held in the United States. 

​Officials have to be concerned about homegrown violent extremism and lone wolves, Johnson explained, along with the “larger picture of general security and general public safety when you have a large public gathering with estimates of 700,000 to 900,000 people in close proximity of each other.”

Securing Local Businesses

While U.S. federal and local officials will be handling the security of public spaces in and around the inauguration, business owners will be responsible for securing their own facilities throughout the festivities. 

One precaution these individuals should take is to map concealment areas in their facilities and regularly conduct routine sweeps of them—particularly the exterior—for weapons of convenience or cached weapons, says Ross Bulla, CPP, PSP, founder and president of The Treadstone Group, Inc., which advises clients on security solutions and best practices for protecting people, property, and information.

This is because a group who might be planning a violent demonstration may try to leave supplies at a local business on a parade route or nearby the National Mall to access them later. If facility owners find these kind of items, Bulla says they should contact law enforcement immediately and post security—if possible—in the area that the items were stowed in.

Bulla also recommends businesses in the immediate vicinity of the inauguration and its parade route assess their physical security, their food and safety handling, water supplies, electrical systems, and shelter in place procedures. This is especially critical for hotels, which might require hundreds of people—both guests and staff—to shelter in place should an emergency occur.

“You also may need to determine a way to re-credential people,” Bulla explains. “Guests who’ve left the facility and need to get back inside, you need to be able to quickly identify them as a guest and get them inside, while not allowing non-guests in.”

And for high-rise facilities, Bulla says it’s critical to limit or prevent rooftop access. 

“Check door locks and secure windows that face the inauguration and parade route because on of the main or favored activities of protest groups is to get on a roof and unfurl banners or throw objects,” he explains. “Your roofs’ become focal points. Newspapers see them, and they’re a great place to throw rocks at law enforcement.”

Securing your Person

Individuals planning to attend the inauguration should review the reference materials provided by officials on prohibited items, which include animals other than service or guide animals, oversized backpacks and bags (18” by 13” by 7”), coolers, mace, selfie sticks, bicycles, and more.

While small bags and purses will be allowed in secure areas, Bulla recommends individuals planning to attend the inauguration try not to carry a bag at all as it will slow them down going through security screenings. 

“If you go to an officially sanctioned event or any unsanctioned or related event, there will be security screening in place,” Bulla says. “Don’t carry an oversized camera, don’t carry an oversized purse—or even carry one…just pack lightly, or nothing more than your wallet if possible.”

Those traveling to Washington, D.C., for inauguration festivities can also sign up for free emergency text alerts and notifications by texting the word “INAUG” to 888777, according to the Secret Service.

Bulla also suggests creating a muster point plan if you’re attending the event with several people should an emergency occur and you need to evacuate quickly.

“It’s one thing to evacuate quickly and protect yourself if there is an incident,” Bulla ​says. “It’s entirely different to be one of 100,000 people running. You’re not going to be able to stay with your husband, your wife, your children.”

Instead of attempting to stay with your party, Bulla says you should plan to run with the crowd and exit the area as quickly as possible. Then, when you’re away from danger, head to the muster point you agreed on beforehand, such as a hotel lobby.

“One of the primary reasons that people are injured or killed is because they panic and don’t have an escape route,” he adds. “Just always know and be aware of your surroundings, and where you’d go if something happened.”

For more on inauguration security, listen to a special edition of the Security Management podcast with a former U.S. Secret Service agent.