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High-tech terror testing keeps game day safe

  • Sport Evac stadium

    The Sport Evac system can model more than 70,000 virtual people to determine how to safely evacuate a public facility in case of an emergecy.Luca Giardino / National Center for Spectator Sports Safety & Security

  • Sport Evac Fireman on field

    Just one of the more than 70,000 figures that can be modeled by a digitial avatar using the Sport Evac software.Luca Giardino / National Center for Spectator Sports Safety & Security

A popular sporting event like the Super Bowl is an attractive target to terrorists, and not just the fodder of Hollywood movies like "Black Sunday" or "The Sum of All Fears."

Pre 9/11 stadiums are designed to get people in efficiently, but not always to get them out. What can security planners do to prepare for the aftermath of an attack in a stadium?

The Sport Evac program trains teams for those "what if" scenarios, by creating virtual 3D stadiums drawn from actual blueprints and packing them with up to 70,000 animated human avatars designed to respond to threats as unpredictably as their human counterparts.

It’s advanced technology fans won’t see on game day -- but tech that behind the scenes makes watching the big game safer.

Evacuation in the event of an emergency is a critical challenge, and rehearsing the how to move around tens of thousands of people isn’t realistic. So sports security planners turn to computers to make sure it all goes smoothly. 

And that means tracking not just sports fans: To simulate all scenarios, from the most likely to the improbable, Sport Evac tracks first responders, police cars, fire trucks, fans’ cars, stadium employees and security.

Sport Evac critically extends beyond the stadium itself and encompasses the parking lot as well. Anyone who has ever tailgated knows that the jam-packed parking lot and roads leading out could be a problem in an emergency.

The virtual stadium allows them to simulate how fans will respond in those first few critical minutes after an attack. Stadium and team security can use the virtual stadium to practice moving players and fans to safety and to run exercises with local first responders.

The simulation and training software was in part funded by the DHS’s Science and Technology Directorate and developed by the National Center for Spectator Sports Safety & Security at the University of Southern Mississippi.

And police, professional sports specialists, the Mississippi Homeland Security and Emergency Management Agency, stadium security and first responders have all played an active role in developing the software as well, to ensure that Sport Evac is as realistic as possible.

In fact, the system has just been sent to 24 universities to evaluate features and keep perfecting it.

Sport Evac Fireman on field
Just one of the more than 70,000 figures that can be modeled by a digitial avatar using the Sport Evac software.

Sport Evac isn’t the only evacuation software program, but others have struggled to meet the scaling challenge of sporting events. Other simulations also failed to include the wide range of human behavior variations and the multitude of factors that may disrupt the best-laid aid plans.

All sorts of curve balls can appear in a threat: parking gridlock, for example, making an orderly exit disorderly, or the elderly having a hard time with a crushing crowd.

Take the recent 49ers' win over the New Orleans Saints, where over 50 fans were ejected for misconduct and 23 people were arrested. What happens when these sorts of hooligans get thrown into the mix in an evacuation?

Sport Evac allows security teams to test the robustness of their planning against the full range of possible factors -- fans fighting against the stream to retrieve forgotten wallets and handbags, spilled beer creating too-slick floors, emergency lights failing and so on.

A smartphone app, known as Sport Evac Lite, will become available as well, so security staff and ushers can see where fans and cars could bottleneck.

Since 9/11 there has been significant progress in joining up the offensive and defensive effort for sporting events. Leagues have prioritized security and taken advantage of technology advances like Sport Evac. Met Life Stadium in New Jersey has been a particular leader in the NFL.

Visible measures post 9/11 have become commonplace, ranging from dirty bomb detectors and no-fly zones to live security and stand-off protection to prevent cars with improvised explosives (called vehicle-based IEDs, or VBIEDs) from driving into the stadium.

Some security cameras and surveillance systems are so good these days that they can pinpoint an individual seat in the stadium.

For Lucas Oil Stadium, some big pieces of security have been installed, including a version of Homeland Security’s Cargo, Vehicle and Contraband Inspection System. This sensor and robotic arm system can see through six inches of steel and scans the delivery trucks for people, rifles, handguns and explosives.

Verizon’s 51-foot Featherlite trailer -- a $1 million mobile command center -- is being lent to the Marion County Department of Homeland Security on its first deployment to a Super Bowl, to help X-ray all cargo vehicles.

The high-tech operations base was designed for Verizon to keep its own networks up when a disaster strikes. It’s a base of operations for areas with limited facilities such as a Super Bowl.

And given that train tracks run within blocks of the stadium, trains were inspected and screened in the week prior to the game. Trains will be suspended from three hours before the game until two hours after to reduce the risk of a terrorist threat or hazardous chemical incident as well.

Fancy security toys are essential, but testing those game-day procedures is also key. And Sport Evac is a great tool for optimizing preparedness and response -- to ensure that if things go south, fans can still get out safely.

Ballet dancer turned defense specialist Allison Barrie has travelled around the world covering the military, terrorism, weapons advancements and life on the front line. You can reach her at wargames@foxnews.com or follow her on Twitter @Allison_Barrie.