In the wake of Sunday night’s sniper attack in Las Vegas, authorities in Austin rushed to reassure the public they are ready to protect the 75,000 people expected each day to pack Zilker Park for the Austin City Limits Music Festival this weekend.
Interim Austin Police Chief Brian Manley said the biggest issues with ACL are usually traffic and getting massive crowds of people in and out of the city.
While he expects the same issues this year, he said authorities have reviewed a security plan months in the making that identifies and addresses any potential threat.
“As a police department, it is important that we pay attention to all threats,” Manley said Monday. “And what we saw happen last night and into this morning is something new that we haven’t seen before — someone that appears to have a very well-planned attack on a large gathering like that, contained in a relatively small location.”
Manley said federal law enforcement partners will participate in security throughout the festival, along with additional officers from the Texas Department of Public Safety.
“As you can imagine, I’m not going to go into specifics of what you will see or what you will not see,” Manley said. “We will have plenty of officers that will be visible, but we will also have plenty that will not be visible, strategically placed, that will only come out if necessary to address any specific incidents.”
Those measures come on top of those already implemented by festival organizers, which include a new ban on large backpacks, umbrellas and inflatable furniture on top of the pat-down searches of years past.
Concerts are considered soft targets for attack: They are difficult to police, and that makes them especially tempting for those looking to target civilians.
Authorities said Monday that it would have been impossible to shield the 22,000 people at the outdoor Las Vegas venue from the gunman, perched on the 32nd floor of a hotel, who shot and killed at least 59 and wounded another 527.
Nor was there an easy way for police to spot the suicide bomber who lurked outside the ticket gate at an Ariana Grande concert in Manchester, England, and blew himself up as teenagers streamed out after the show, killing 22.
In the immediate aftermath of the Sept. 11 terrorists attacks, emergency response officials determined that the city would struggle to deal with a mass casualty event.
The scenario was simple: Imagine that an explosion ripped through a downtown skyscraper, raining concrete and glass onto the streets below. On any given day back in 2001, the area’s 10 hospitals at the time with their usually open 400 beds would be quickly overwhelmed, authorities said.
“We just don’t have the capacity,” said Steve Collier, then director of Austin’s Office of Emergency Management. “We’ve never tested a scenario like that.”
Things have changed in the intervening 16 years as Austin added more than a quarter-million people to its population. Austin-Travis County Emergency Medical Services now has roughly 40 ambulances operating at any given time, ferrying patients to 21 hospitals in Travis, Hays and Williamson counties.
The region also replaced its aging main trauma hospital, University Medical Center Brackenridge, when Dell Seton Medical Center opened earlier this year. It has more emergency room beds and was designed with the possibility of a mass casualty event — such as a bombing or shooting — in mind.
Unlike UMC Brackenridge, all 53 of Dell Seton’s emergency rooms can be easily converted to handle trauma cases, giving doctors new flexibility to cope with a crisis.
“As much drilling and practice as you do, it’s always going to catch you by surprise,” said Dr. Carlos Brown, Dell Seton’s chief of trauma. “You want to be able to practice as often as you can.”