Living and working in Salt Lake City before and during the 2002 Olympics was one of the highlights of my government career. So much to see, so many professional people to work with, and huge amounts of satisfying work to perform. Of course, Salt Lake 2002 was right after the horrors of 9/11 – there was much discussion in our circles as to whether or not we should go ahead with the Games due to seemingly overwhelming security concerns that had been created by the events and fallout of 9/11. Fortunately, it was decided that the best response to 9/11 was to put on a flag-waving Olympics and show the world that we were all able to rise up and do amazing things in spite of the pain and hurt we were still feeling from 9/11.
But going ahead with the Games made the preparation just prior to the Olympics incredibly challenging. True to form, though, everyone pulled together and we were ready to go for the opening ceremonies on Feb 8, 2002. The good news is that the Games came and went without any major incidents. That is not to say, however, that there wasn’t a great deal of vigilance at all times – sometimes, maybe, too much.
Things were fairly calm – or as calm as the Joint Operations Center (JOC) could be – among all of the watchstanders. Outside, it was a sunny day, Olympic events were happening at various venues around us, and things seemed to be going along pretty well. There were so many protection personnel on the ground – some seen and some undercover – that sometimes it seemed like there were more of us than spectators and participants. But this was the plan – have eyes and ears everywhere to make sure that nothing could happen and escalate either because it could be prevented or because it could be tackled in its earliest stages. Lots of security people were looking around – and not just at Olympic venues but also in neighborhoods, shopping malls, schools, and anywhere there were citizens who could become targets for mean people.
We had one team out who had come across something interesting in a school playground very near a children’s merry-go-round. At first, the incident didn’t seem too serious – its description and status was lost in normal command center chatter. But as our people in the field kept working and trying to identify the unidentified article next to the merry-go-round, the incident started to escalate up in our center. No one local could conclusively identify what the item was from a distance. The shape and size was not something easily identifiable. It looked oddly shaped – perhaps in a bag of some kind. It had odd colors – greens and reds mostly.
After a few minutes of investigative work by the first on-scene people and based on their subsequent recommendations, it was decided that this was truly an incident that we needed to be worried about. The immediate area was cordoned off, various specialty groups were called into the scene to assist in the identification and possible handling of the package, and law enforcement management was notified that there was possibly a high-risk event about to occur or was already underway. Our command center ramped up to it highest readiness level – the conference room in the center was quickly manned by key security personnel from the JOC. We all sat around the big U-shaped table waiting for instructions and for further intelligence to flow in. We followed our protocols. We followed the processes previously set up to handle critical situations like this. We were making ready to send out notifications to various law enforcement and local governments. This was tense – we had a problem to deal with.
Our teams were on-scene and suited up. Sensors galore were up and running. Every possible means was being used to get to the bottom of this crisis. Was this truly a biological or explosive threat?
Well, no. After a tense hour or so, it was determined that the unknown package was – wait for it – a child’s selection of red and green colored jello cubes in a baggie that must have fallen on the ground during outside playtime earlier in the day.
We didn’t laugh or think this was silly – we were all too tense and wound-up. But admittedly we were very relieved and, in fact, we had learned a lot about ourselves from this exercise. We had all done well!
Thanks, little green and red jello squares. You created a few hours of intense anxiety for some of the world’s best law enforcement personnel that could have ever been created.