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When it was first announced that my hometown of Pittsburgh had been selected to host the G-20 Summit I have to say I was genuinely thrilled at the news.  The entire world was going to see the “City of Champions” as I know it – a place where great neighborhoods and excellence in commerce, education, medical care, and not just championship sports teams reside.  The one-time industrial city once known for its choking, smoky skies because of the 24/7 steel plant operations has transitioned into city of corporate skyscrapers, world-class medical and educational centers and a spectacular skyline. 

While there is a tremendous honor in hosting an event like the G-20 Summit, there is also the tremendous hassle and headache that come with it.  That is what Pittsburgh is experiencing now. 

Like other cities around the United States, Pittsburgh is a city with budget problems.  While the city is home to major corporations such as PNC Bank, PPG, US Steel and others, the economic recession has left it with more debts than income.  That’s a serious problem when you’re about to host the world, and have to foot the bill. 

Labeled as a National Special Security Event (NSSE) given the significance of the event, the US Secret Service will oversee security operations for the G-20 Summit.  In partnership with the City of Pittsburgh’s Police Department (only 900 or so members strong) and State and regional law enforcement departments, an unprecedented mobilization of police will take to the streets to ensure public order.  It is forecast that an event of this type takes a police presence of 4,000 strong.

Why so many? 

When you look at the recent history of similar events, in cases where the world’s political leaders assemble (e.g. political conventions, presidential inaugurations, other summits, etc.), they are not just an exceptional target for terrorists, but also for protestors wanting to make their voices and presence heard and seen. 

While NSSE’s are extraordinarily complicated, if you talk to anyone involved with one of them, or any other large scale event, hosted by a major city, they will all tell you one thing they don’t want to happen to them – Seattle.

Memories of the violent protests that rocked the City of Seattle in 1999 when it hosted the meetings of International Monetary Fund and World Trade Organization remain fairly strong. No city is looking to have its showcase moment in front of the world’s media ruined by broadcast images of burning cars, smashed storefronts and chaos in the streets.  The camera footage recorded of the 1999 meeting did that and told the world something that was more than obvious – Seattle was completely unprepared to deal with the event and the violence unleashed by some protestors.

Since then, cities in the United States and around the world that play host to major events have improved overall event planning and coordination between the organizers and host cities; trained and mobilized significant numbers of police to support the events; provided designated areas to ensure that protestors can peacefully exercise their civil rights; and increased information sharing among public safety and emergency management personnel prior to, and during, the event. 

Hence the hassle and headache that Pittsburgh is experiencing now.   

While the White House finally opened its checkbook last week to provide more than $10M to help cover the region’s costs associated with the G-20, they, along with the US Secret Service, are not providing the leadership or information necessary to answer a number of important questions about this event.

Numerous Pittsburgh groups, as well as many from outside of Western Pennsylvania, have applied for permits for assorted parades, camps and protest rallies during the summit.  In attempting to work with these groups, the city has either given them an outright “no” to their request or told them their applications are in limbo pending decisions by the US Secret Service.

Further compounding the hassle and headache associated with the G-20 hosting honor is what this event will do for daily life in Pittsburgh. 

Business owners and employees that already battle traffic to get to and from work don’t know when or if they will even be able to get there because of security restrictions. 

Parents don’t even know if their kids will have school during the Summit given the traffic and other restrictions that will be imposed to safeguard the heads of state and other dignitaries. 

While the event may still be a few weeks off (September 24-25), its well past time for the White House and US Secret Service to step up to the plate and be better guests to the people of Pittsburgh. 

Everyone in that community fully understands the security needs and precautions that need to be undertaken to protect the president, his family and all of the other visiting heads of state. 

While respecting those needs, the federal government should also respect for the protestors, and their civil rights to be peacefully heard.  Whether you believe their cause to be righteous or ridiculous, they have a right to peacefully assemble and give voice to whatever it is that fires them up. 

The prevailing and apparent attitude of “We’ll get to you when we get to you” about what areas should be cordoned off for security needs is not helping the city, its businesses, schools or citizens plan or prepare either.  Such an attitude only makes the situation worse.

How? 

First off, it further antagonizes the protestors, especially the ones who already feel the government is out to get them and is already hostile to what they stand for.  Some of these parties are already hell-bent to cause chaos and violence.  By blowing them off and not communicating about where they can protest only adds to their disenfranchisement, gives them new recruits and additional excuse to rage against the machine.

Second, when the White House and the heads of state leave town, it will be the people of the Western Pennsylvania left to deal not just the final expenses associated with the Summit but also the lingering feuds, lawsuits and problems that come from strained ties between the public safety and law enforcement agencies and the businesses, citizens and activists that call the area home. 

The fact that we are four weeks out from the Summit and answers can not be given to some basic questions does nothing to help my hometown to prepare to host the world. 

No one is asking or expecting the White House or Secret Service to divulge state secrets or security protocols by being more forthcoming with more details, but after.  After all of the NSSE’s that we’ve had in this country, we should have down what works and what doesn’t. 

The prevailing silence of the White House and Secret Service to keeping a community informed and allow for respectful planning and information sharing between citizens, protestors and their community’s public safety leaders does not work; nor does it make them as good a guests that they could and SHOULD be.

Such are the hassles and headaches of hosting the world.

Rich Cooper blog primarily on emergency preparedness and response, management issues related to the Department of Homeland Security, and the private sector’s role in homeland security. Read More