Los Angeles Gets Scary


October is the month to think about all things spooky and scary so we thought we'd share our thoughts on the scariest public safety scenarios that keep us up at night. From our perspective, the nightmare scenarios involve the City being taken hostage, either virtually or physically.

Imagine a ransomware cyberattack that travels across the City's networks, holding all data hostage until the ransom is paid.  Even worse, imagine a complex coordinated terror attack where multiple targets are attacked simultaneously, creating city-wide chaos and hindering the City's ability to respond.  

The good news is that Los Angeles is meeting these threats head on with innovative and practical solutions. Mayor Garcetti's administration has prioritized cyber security with several initiatives that are the first of their kind in the county. When it comes to public safety response and coordination among agencies, the Los Angeles region is often looked to as one of the best in the nation. That coordination is essential for thwarting and responding to sophisticated, simultaneous attacks on multiple targets.  We will spare you any tired trick or treat metaphors and jump into the specifics.

Cyber Attacks: Ransomware

October is National Cybersecurity Awareness month -- created to raise awareness and ensure people have the resources to be safe and secure online. For the past decade the most prevalent type of cybercrime was intellectual property theft.  Attackers would rob people or companies of their ideas, inventions, and creative expressions, including patents, copyrights and trade secrets.  

However, 2014-2015 ushered in the era of ransomware attacks, a new battlefront for hackers.  Ransomware is a range of malicious software that will pervade your computer or IT system and encrypt anything the infected machine is linked to, including external drives and data backups. As described in a recent New York Times article, "ransomware is different because it does not destroy data or equipment. It simply locks it up, making it inaccessible without a complex numeric key that is provided only to those who pay the ransom." 

The past year saw a dramatic uptick in reported ransomware attacks. In July, the US Conference of Mayors confirmed 22 ransomware attacks on city, county, and state governments in the first six months of 2019.  Why the increase?  Some experts point to the rise of cryptocurrencies such as Bitcoin and Merano. Cryptocurrency transactions are completely anonymous and highly secure; attackers demanding to be paid in cryptocurrency ensure the financial transaction is virtually untraceable. 

So how do we defend ourselves?  Besides sharing preventative tips -- such as do not open emails from senders you don't recognize and back up all your data -- the Department of Homeland Security and FBI have struggled with how to assist victims.  But on the local level, the City of Los Angles is taking proactive measures.  

In 2014, Mayor Garcetti unveiled a state-of-the-art Cyber Intrusion Command Center which operates 24/7 to monitor cyberthreats facing the Los Angeles area. Then in 2017 the Mayor launched the LA Cyber Lab, a cooperative network created to disseminate information and intelligence based on analysis of more than one billion security-related events and over four million attempted intrusions into City networks per day.  

Most recently in September 2019, the Mayor announced the Threat Intelligence Sharing Platform.  The platform, developed in partnership with IBM, collects cyber threats from city agencies and private businesses who have opted to participate, analyzes the data and generates threat intelligence and trend analysis for all members, including smaller sized business who might not be able track these trends on their own.

Los Angeles is one of the first cities in the nation to share its cyber threat data with the public. This is an important step forward because too frequently companies and organizations that have been hacked don't release the information for fear of brand and reputational damage. By providing timely notifications regarding specific threats, the Mayor's office might give local companies the crucial few hours they need to run that virus check and install the latest security updates.

Terror Attacks: Complex Coordinated Attacks

FEMA defines a complex coordinated terror attack (CCTA) as an act of terrorism that involves synchronized and independent team(s) at multiple locations, initiated with little or no warning, and employing one or more weapon systems: firearms, explosives, fire as a weapon, and other nontraditional attack methodologies that are intended to result in large numbers of casualties. The attacks in Mumbai in 2008 and in Paris in 2015 are recent examples.

The coordinated attacks in Paris on November 13 left 130 people dead and hundreds wounded. The attackers targeted a soccer stadium, bars and restaurants and a concert hall -- all venues they knew would be crowded on a Friday evening. Simultaneous attacks with multiple crime scenes require a nimble response from a security force trained in crisis and counter-terrorism strategies.  LAPD pioneered a tactical program known as MACTAC, Multiple Assault Counter-Terrorism Action Capabilities. MACTAC trains officers to spontaneously and effectively control various threats as quickly as possible and fosters prompt, cooperative training and response among multiple agencies. 

In January/February 2020, the City will conduct what is known in the industry as a Functional Exercise, in which they will simulate a complex coordinated terrorist attack on the City and test our ability to respond.  These exercises work to ensure that the various agencies involved, including fire, police, emergency management, public health and transportation, know how to work together. These exercises also test the City's ability to communicate with the public as events unfold.  Without official, timely updates the news and social media will fill the gap, often with inaccurate or misleading information which only further aggravates the chaos.

These exercises are incredibly complex to stage and expensive in terms of dedicated labor hours. Are they worth it?  Absolutely. As we often hear in the field, "You don't rise to the occasion; you fall to your level of preparedness.” 

Following the bombing at the Boston Marathon, the Harvard Kennedy School released a report sharing lessons learned and analyzing why the response in Boston had been so effective.  Their primary finding was that the Boston region had trained and prepared for exactly such an event and they credited the multi-dimensional preparedness of the region. "Response organizations have undertaken detailed and careful planning for the many fixed events like the Marathon that are staged annually in the Boston area. They have seen to the development of both institutional and personal relationships among response organizations and their senior commanders, ensured the adoption of formal coordination practices, regularly held intra- and cross-organization drills and exercises, and generated experience during actual events."

As the City does its best to prepare for these nightmare scenarios let's do our part as Angelenos.  The final recommendation from the Harvard Kennedy School report concluded: "Community resilience should be systematically developed and celebrated. In the face of the bombing, Boston showed strength, resilience, even defiance – and these were key drivers of the overall outcomes … that is, of ‘Boston Strong’.”  We don't need a nightmare to be Los Angeles Strong.  

Long Read: Looking to Atlanta

Photo Credit: HKS Sports and Entertainment

Photo Credit: HKS Sports and Entertainment

Mark your calendars!  On February 6, 2022 the Super Bowl LVI kicks off from Los Angeles Stadium at Hollywood Park. LA has the weather, a sparkling new stadium and a revitalized Inglewood. What is the only thing that could ruin the experience?  Navigating our sprawling landscape.  

Most football fans probably think of the Super Bowl as a three-hour game, but for the host city the Super Bowl means two weeks of activities.  When the Super Bowl comes to LA, "There's going to be events going on all over town," said Kathy Schloesman, president of the Los Angeles Sports and Entertainment Commission. "We have so much to offer and we're so spread out."  Kevin Demoff, chief operating officer of the LA Rams, echoed that sentiment. "You want the entire city to have Super Bowl fever, and I think that's what the design reflects."  

Current plans include the NFL Experience, an "interactive theme park" hosted at the Convention Center, Super Bowl LIVE, an outdoor festival with food and music, at Exposition Park; media events at the Intercontinental Hotel in downtown; and tons of other attractions in Venice, Inglewood and Universal Studios Hollywood.  

However, moving thousands of people amongst and between these various events will be no small feat.  And as a city we want visitors' time here to be enjoyable, which for the transportation system means safe, reliable, comfortable service. To quote Demoff, "Your goal is always that the event reflects well on the entire city, the citizens, the transportation hubs and the stadium.  It's a complete effort.  From the moment you land at the airport as a guest, to the moment you get back on the plane, did you enjoy the Super Bowl city experience?"

If all proceeds as planned, visitors will arrive at a newly renovated LAX, with access to an expanded and improved mass transit system, integrating bus, rail, bikes and cars, for a seamless transit experience.  And accommodating the Super Bowl influx will give policy makers a window into what to expect when the both the World Cup and Olympics come to town in the coming years.

The stress this influx will put on the City's already congested and overburdened streets and roads cannot be overstated.  Los Angeles, and Metro specifically, has a huge task ahead.  But I think Atlanta can help.

Atlanta hosted the 2019 Super Bowl and by all accounts it was a huge success.  MARTA, Atlanta's public transit system, was specifically acknowledged for its ability to move hundreds of thousands of fans safely and efficiently.  This achievement is remarkable because only a year earlier MARTA got a very public black eye for its mishandling of rail operations following the college football national championship game. How did Atlanta and MARTA adapt and evolve? And what can LA, and LA Metro, learn from Atlanta's experiences?

The Five Points rail station in Atlanta is MARTA's largest station, serving as the main transfer point between the north-south lines and the east-west lines.  On January 8, 2018 following the national college championship game at Mercedes-Benz stadium, fans poured into the station. Because of "passenger overfill and crowded platforms," rail doors wouldn't close so trains couldn't move. Hundreds of passengers were waiting for trains that weren't going anywhere. People began calling 9-1-1 from inside the station because they were unable to locate MARTA personnel or security. While no one was seriously hurt, MARTA vowed to improve for the Super Bowl.

What happened? MARTA dramatically underestimated the number of fans who would choose public transportation to and from the college game.  MARTA had anticipated an additional 15,000 riders but more than 22,000 used the rail lines.  Several key operational blunders also contributed to the congestion. There was limited communication between the stations, and MARTA failed to prevent riders from boarding trains bound for Five Points even though it was filled to capacity.  Then there weren't enough MARTA employees to handle the crowd.  Inaccurate estimates and inadequate staffing created a nightmare situation.

Fast forward a year. 

On February 3, 2019 Atlanta hosted the Super Bowl at the same Mercedes-Benz stadium. And that day MARTA got everything right. MARTA moved more than half a million customers during the three-day Super Bowl weekend, largely without incident. As The Atlanta Journal Constitution reported, "you could almost hear metro Atlanta breathe a collective sigh of relief."

So how did they do it?  

MARTA spent two years and budgeted an additional $2 million preparing for the Super Bowl and the investment paid off.  Appropriate staffing was a priority.  MARTA ensured adequate personnel were allocated to service the station.  In addition, MARTA employed "transit ambassadors" to assist customers as they made their way to the game.On Super Bowl Sunday riders were greeted by more than 600 Transit Ambassadors, positioned throughout MARTA’s 38 rail stations.  

To accommodate the swell in ridership, MARTA ran 24-hour rail service. Mechanics were staged in the field at key spots to respond quickly to problems should they arise. Prior to game day, MARTA conducted a full-scale exercise to test their ability to respond to a terror attack on the transit system.  On Super Bowl Sunday MARTA police officers were highly visible throughout the system. More than 500 sworn officers, along with those assisting from other agencies, worked around the clock to ensure there were no public safety issues. 

So as Los Angeles prepares for its turn in the national sports spot light, the amount of planning and event preparation needed cannot be understated. The transportation experience may well be the key indicator on how well Los Angeles handles the demands of the Superbowl and will be equipped for the events that follow.

by Julie Quinn