The 100th running of the Indianapolis 500 is scheduled for May 29, 2016. Event organizers are anticipating a record breaking crowd approaching 350,000. The approximate capacity of the grandstands is 250,000 plus an additional 100,000 people on the infield. Just some perspective — roughly 1 out of every 1,000 Americans will be attending this centennial celebration. Surprisingly, unlike other sports venues, the Indy Motor Speedway does NOT release precise attendance figures.
For the third straight year, the Indianapolis 500 has earned a Level 2 Special Event Assessment Rating from the U.S. Department of Homeland Security. This designation paves the way for federal funding. Emergency response personnel will be up 20% across the board (medics, firefighters, police, etc.). Helicopters, video surveillance, barricades, checkpoints, the works. Even the FBI plays an “unspecified role.”
Aside from the roar of the crowd, the Indy 500 differs from other sporting events in one particular way. Ambient synthetic noise.
A race in full swing can reach about 140 decibels, roughly the same deafening level as the deck of an aircraft carrier. The closest approximation is standing next to a Boeing 747 upon takeoff… for about 3 1/2 hours straight. It’s impossible to hear someone unless they’re screaming into your cupped ear.
However, there’s still a way for people to communicate. And it’s staring everyone directly in their collective faces. CELL PHONES. In fact, crowd behavior at the Indy 500 has markedly changed since the turn of the century. If you take a cursory glance around the racetrack, you’ll find that fans are periodically looking down into their tiny mobile phone screens. Consider the dizzying spectacle of 33 vehicles traveling in excess of 200 MPH combined with the thunderous, perpetual din. Wireless communication becomes a realistic way to keep tabs on the actual race. It’s also an effective means for transmitting and receiving instantaneous information, particularly via facebook and twitter. The Indianapolis Motor Speedway is a wirelessly hyper-connective environment.
Also keep in mind, fans have no direct visual connection with the bulk of the racetrack. They can only see a “fraction of the action.” These variables present an unusual dynamic: the ability to witness unusual behavior but the inability to comprehend unusual behavior.
Here’s what I’m concerned about.
If there was a coordinated wireless saturation of information encouraging people to abruptly vacate their seats, it could conceivably trigger a panic… potentially resulting in an “artificially generated stampede.” Think beyond bomb threats. Think in terms of convincing evacuation orders. Perhaps something like this…
The United States Department of Homeland Security has issued an emergency evacuation order for the Indianapolis Motor Speedway. Remain calm. Exit the venue immediately.
How might fans react to something like this? What about time-sensitive offers for free food or discounted merchandise. What about an unanticipated celebrity sighting or a famous retired race car driver signing autographs? What if you received an unexpected text from your Aunt Barbara in Detroit, expressing concern for your safety and well-being?
If one witnessed a significant number of people hastily exiting their seats for no apparent reason… how might the average individual react?
So here’s the million dollar question. Does DHS or Indy 500 security have a realistic contingency plan to effectively handle these scenarios? Is there some kind of top secret, multi-layered cyber-shield that protects fans from receiving targeted false information (direct and/or decentralized)? Remember, these are variables that test asymmetric warfare scenarios. Predictable dilemmas that mankind, for the most part, has yet to encounter.
Label me a cynic, but if they have a game plan, I’d love to hear about it. Any rational person would conclude that solving a universal security disconnect like this one, would at the very least, require making people minimally aware of the problem itself. It’s called situational awareness.
So here’s some additional food for thought. The Indy 500 is the most heavily attended 1-day sporting event on the planet earth. One that requires using oil and ethanol (high grade gasoline) as a means to maximize American entertainment. One that coincides with Memorial Day weekend. One that’s a tourist destination for civilians from all walks of life. One that’s viewed by hundreds of millions of sports enthusiasts around the world. One that routinely happens every year in the heartland of the United States.
Now virtually every individual at the Indy 500 will forfeit their cell phone for about 2 seconds (when it’s placed in a small plastic tray as they proceed through a magnetometer). Then they will retrieve it for the duration. Has anyone explicitly told fans how their cell phones could conceivably be used to spark a panic… resulting in a stampede? That their cell phones could actually be used as weapons? Uhh, nope.
The Department of Homeland Security has a traditionally simple, straightforward, public safety directive. It will be prominently displayed throughout the entire weekend.
If you see something, say something
So here’s something to contemplate. Society’s most challenging, vexing problems often have the simplest solutions.
Whoaa! Wait a second! Ssshhh! Government and private industry aren’t allowed to talk about the modern, technological equivalent of shouting “fire” in a crowded theater. Granted, this one’s a bitch because it theoretically involves a tacit admission of how to feasibly kill scores of people without conventional weapons (the weaponizing of a human stampede).
I raised these concerns on the official Indy 500 facebook page, and of course… was permanently blocked. Apparently, the “see something say something” dynamic does not apply to the intersection of social media and hypothetical acts of terrorism.
Still, the least they could do is just tell people the TRUTH.
An official emergency racetrack evacuation order would NEVER be delivered via your personal cell phone.
That’s just not how it’s done. Hint: They utilize this thing called the public address. That’s how it has worked for well over a century. Now IMS and DHS are well aware of the fact that virtually everyone has a cell phone. This is merely the bare minimum amount of public safety information that either of them should provide. There’s a moral, and many would argue, legal obligation. Please note: I have no problem with cellular updates AFTER an evacuation has been satisfactorily achieved. This is strictly regarding the initial order (assuming an evacuation is deemed absolutely necessary).
The element of danger is something that attracts people to the Indy 500. But what if the most treacherous aspect of this Sunday’s race… is an absurdly generic, scenario that has never been analyzed… let alone acknowledged or addressed?