The Olympics: A look back
VANCOUVER, British Columbia—Nearly four months after the end of the 2010 Olympic Games, the City of Vancouver continues to evaluate its operations as well as the lasting benefits of hosting one of the biggest international events.
Kevin Wallinger, director of emergency management for the City of Vancouver, was involved extensively in the planning and preparation for the Olympics and said one of the biggest challenges was understanding the complexities an event like this would have on the city’s ability to respond. Part of the city’s strategy was to ensure that it could respond well to the events that happen most often. “Things happen all the time – accidents, power failures, severe weather – we needed to make sure we got those things right,” he said. However, the city had to plan for the extreme events as well. “We couldn’t lose sight of the worst-case scenarios that are possible but unlikely, but if we focused all our attention on the worst-case scenarios and missed the boat on things that happen all the time, those are the things that will burn you later and the ones that are more important to get right,” he said.
Mastering communication channels between the four jurisdictions where Olympic events were being held and clearly defining the roles and responsibilities of various authorities was a seven-year effort by the city. “It was more important to make sure that our street-level response plans were being done so we brought together a number of representatives from agencies working in Vancouver to talk about interaction and what the interface would be between Olympic venues and outside the secure perimeter,” he said.
The city developed a playbook that had copies of venue plans, communication procedures and response plans, which were provided to participating agencies. The playbook helped define the communication flow inside and outside the secure perimeter and defined how decisions were to be made and by whom. But the city never lost sight of who their most important security forces were. “Ninety-five percent of issues are resolved at the street level, so we wanted to make sure we had the tools for people at that level,” he said.
It was building this communication structure that will have the most lasting effect in the city, said Wallinger. “The level of respect between agencies moved the bar significantly and that was a necessity for the Olympics, but I think the biggest legacy in planning for the Olympics was that level of improved relationships,” he said.
But, of course, technology played a huge part in providing that improved situational awareness. The city integrated a geo-spatial information and mapping system into its emergency operation center and integrated it into its computer aided dispatch system. “It’s run through an interface so nobody needs to make any phone calls that there’s a fire happening in a particular area,” he said.
The EOC, which is co-located in the same building as the city’s 911 center, underwent a $1.5 million renovation leading up to the Olympics, with focus on the audio and video distribution. The city held three major exercises to test the viability of the center. During the Olympics, the EOC was activated for 60 days, and for two-and-one-half weeks during that period it was operational 24/7.
The city deployed an extensive 100-camera HD surveillance system from Avigilon through five of the most heavily populated corridors in the city’s entertainment district. The network of the cameras is a hybrid infrastructure of a fiber and wireless network. “We had four cameras at each intersection, in each direction, to view up and down each street,” he said. “The police had real-time access to all the cameras,” he said.
However, despite all the money and effort spent to prepare for the Olympics, the system was only approved for temporary use. “A big concern was the use of cameras in public spaces and privacy issues, so the mayor made a decision that the cameras would be put up and taken down for the Olympics,” he said.
“Whether it’s a policy decision or a political decision we can only do what we’re given authority to do and we’re fortunate we had the system in place for the Olympics,” he said. “It was successful and proved valuable to us in understanding what was going on from a situational awareness perspective.”
However, the 100 cameras deployed for the games remain in storage. Wallinger hopes the city can build enough public confidence to re-install the system and believes an upcoming academic report will help their cause. During the Olympics a graduate student from the University of Victoria spent at least 12 shifts in the control room, focusing on how decisions were being made and how cameras were being used from a privacy perspective. “My understanding is that he was impressed with the way we were able to balance the use of the system with respect to privacy concerns,” he said. “I think when that type of information comes out, it will help move the discussion forward again.”