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Trial and error: learning from L.A.'s riot.

WHEN LARGE-SCALE civil disobedience struck the Los Angeles area following the Rodney King verdict on April 30, 1992, thousands of people within the community lost their businesses, jobs, homes, and in some cases, their lives to the violence and wanton destruction that ruled the area for several days. The violence and destruction not only affected those living and working in the immediate area but also those commuting through it and those who worked on the fringes.

Within hours of the verdict, many business managers and their security representatives found themselves initiating and implementing emergency plans. They naturally had to handle many questions from their employees. Personnel concerns dealt with such issues as safety, travel, and work schedules. What many security managers found during the civil disobedience was the planning that had taken place was good to a point, but some factors were not anticipated.

What broke down. First and foremost, management lacked accurate and verified information. The news media was effective in providing raw data concerning the events to anyone with a radio or television. Live news reports and updates made people instantly aware of the most recent developments and at the same time outdated the updates provided by management in many workplaces.

Many employees not only saw the news footage but also could see the plumes of smoke from burning buildings and cars, which increased their concerns. This combination created the need for quick evaluation and dissemination of information allowing those affected to arrange and alter their travel plans as needed.

In addition to supplying information, these ongoing news broadcasts with continual repetition of particularly brutal footage served to heighten the concerns of many people who faced a long commute through the affected areas.

Media coverage of the riot was the sole information source for some individuals far removed from the violence. For many others, the rising smoke plumes from multiple fires served as proof that the riot was around them and moving closer. The violence, the fires, and the total civil disobedience in some areas led to numerous road and area closures and caused people to consider their personal safety before their employment responsibilities.

Some of the problems management teams faced were employees who could not return to work because they lived in areas under curfew, had to travel through areas that posed serious threats to their personal safety, or had to care for their families because their routine child care facilities were closed.

The escalating violence and size of the affected areas made routine law enforcement and fire response impossible. Calls for service went unanswered simply because all available public safety resources were committed to existing emergencies.

Many proprietary and contract guard forces were left to fend for themselves. Increasing security staffs after the riot proved difficult because the demand for personnel quickly outgrew the available supply.

In the early stages of the uprising, travel on many major streets was extremely slow if not impossible. This breakdown in commuting was the result of three primary factors. First, large numbers of employees left their work sites at the same time; second, some of the arterial streets these people normally used were closed because of the disturbance; and third, the dusk-to-dawn curfew required people to begin or complete their commute during daylight hours.

In some instances, communications equipment, such as land line telephones, was rendered unusable due to the sheer volume of people trying to use the system at the same time. This inability to get updated information in the workplace or to communicate with family and friends outside the workplace heightened the fears many employees had. These concerns included personal safety issues, such as traveling to and from their homes at the beginning and end of the workday.

Private sector access to reliable information through emergency operation centers (EOCs) was almost nonexistent. The demands of the constantly changing situation and the inability to contact the EOCs presented a great challenge to private sector security teams trying to obtain valid information.

What worked. A highly visible security presence was effective in reducing or eliminating damage to property. Many business owners found that they could successfully thwart destructive efforts by locking gates and doors and by quickly instituting visible security measures such as additional armed security officers at key locations.

Redundant communications systems were critically important because they provided management with a second chance to spread knowledge throughout the work force. Organizations that were equipped with radio systems, voice mail, and emergency hot lines, allowing simultaneous multiple line access from outside callers, were better equipped to meet the needs of their employees.

Many managers, with input from security representatives, evaluated the noncritical positions and through schedule adjustments were able to assign at-home work for some and excuse others on a temporary basis so they would not have to travel through unsafe areas. Some workers who were assigned to scheduled shifts had their hours of work adjusted so that they were beyond the danger area before the hours of curfew.

Lessons learned. A review of the experiences of about 30 local businesses suggests that security managers can take a number of steps to enhance a company's ability to deal with civil unrest. Some, such as a good communications system, are apparent. Others, such as the need to anticipate slow or nonexistent responses from public safety sources, may be less obvious.

Availability of personnel is essential. Once the riot got under way, a well-trained and effective security officer was priceless. Virtually every small business in the greater Los Angeles area hired private security officers to sit in front of their businesses. Consequently, contract firms sold out. That made locating security personnel after the fact difficult.

Companies should plan ahead by formulating a contingency plan for a proprietary system or, if contract security officers are used, by having an agreement with the contract guard company that it will muster people from other accounts in unaffected areas to handle an emergency.

A key to meeting the needs of employees during civil unrest is getting accurate and timely information to those who need it. Hourly updates to employees can be effective in evaluating and preparing travel advisories and plans, as well as in maintaining calm.

Downed phone lines and disabled equipment left many land line systems inoperative. Cellular phones were a vital link to information and safety. Radios and paging systems also helped fill a void for communications.

In addition to voice mail, cellular phones, and paging systems, companies should not overlook basic methods of communication, such as message boards and flyers at entrance and exit points.

At the same time, security managers must recognize that both employees and decision makers will be getting raw data and information from media broadcasts. At times, this may be the only and best source of information available. New reports can, however, be misleading as the media will sometimes report unconfirmed events or extrapolate trends that suggest violence is closer to a given business region than it is.

Since news reports cannot be controlled, this is a difficult problem to address. In addition to alerting both management and staff of the need for caution with regard to news reports, it may help to have knowledgeable personnel dedicated to evaluating information as the crisis evolves.

The information analyst should be familiar with roadways, travel routes, and area businesses. He or she should be able to spot trends and make forecasts that can be passed along to management and employees. If possible, someone from the company should be positioned in an EOC to increase management's access to factual information.

A relationship with the local EOC should be established before a crisis occurs. The EOC will serve as the tactical nerve center during an emergency. It will have the latest reports on road closures, downed power lines, food supplies, and other vital information.

While some municipalities will not welcome private sector involvement, companies should participate in EOC operations whenever possible. That might entail working with the planning and staffing team or just maintaining professional contacts.

Most EOCs will have drills once a year where all participants send representatives. Formulating and staging such practice exercises with the EOC to test response systems and their viability are excellent ways to verify system readiness. The drill also provides an opportunity to see how the company plans would integrate with the citywide strategy.

It is important to exchange ideas and solutions with other security professionals during the crisis. Meeting times should be set so that networking does not fall through the cracks during the confusion. This type of intercompany communication was largely neglected during the Los Angeles riots, but companies now agree it would have been a useful security management tool.

Since counterparts will receive current information about the problems each organization is facing, networking can provide security officials with a greater comfort level when reporting to management about developments outside the company. It will help some companies avoid trouble and will allow others to solve problems quickly by using successful strategies of businesses that faced similar situations.

If regular and ongoing updates are not possible, after-the-fact critiques of action plans can be helpful in identifying strategies in need of improvement. Developing a list of action items from this analysis and working through them can be an effective way to enhance performance.

The plan modification can be something as simple as making sure the company will have people available in an emergency who can go out and change the focal point of video surveillance equipment from the gate to the street so that security can assess a threat sooner.

Companies must, of course, be realistic in establishing action items. Unlimited personnel, equipment, and supplies only exist on paper. Although managers may want 10 or 15 additional people, it is possible that only two or three will be approved.

Civil defense meetings should be held regularly to discuss new protection procedures. If possible, it can be helpful to evaluate and analyze another organization's planned response and to receive similar feedback through a reciprocal exchange of information.

These meetings will also serve a dual purpose by allowing and encouraging tactical planners to meet their counterparts. Few organizations face unique problems.

Businesses must anticipate and plan for the possibility that the response of public safety providers will be slow or nonexistent. The plan might, for instance, identify, train, and equip a group of employees willing to undertake the security function as a reserve force during a crisis. If so, it may be necessary to have emergency response equipment available for use by this reserve group. This should include not only lights, protective clothing, and food but also bathroom and sleeping facilities.

The absence of public safety response may require some part of a facility to be closed or the activities therein reduced. Now is the time to evaluate the work performed by the organization and to identify what could be temporarily moved, curtailed, modified, or eliminated so as to reduce the need for security resources without affecting long-term operational goals.

Identify where and how physical security tools could be used to reduce personnel needs. Such items as CCTV, fencing, gate construction and placement, lighting, road design and access, signage, guard dogs, and natural barricades can be used to harden the target and reduce staffing requirements.

Companies, such as Chevron and other refineries, that have their own supplemental fire fighters should draw up agreements to assist one another in emergency situations where municipal forces may be overburdened. A well-planned and effectively implemented mutual-aid response agreement among businesses with industrial fire departments can literally be a lifesaver in the event of arson.

Ingress and egress routes should be identified, and access control system requirements should be met and continually verified as accurate. Training exercises should include familiarity with plant layout and the practical application of equipment to determine whether the apparatus is compatible with existing fire systems and communication centers.

Emergency phone lists should be updated and readily available. Obtaining the phone number of the EOC or other services is quite difficult after the disturbance is under way.

In both the public and private sectors, planning for disasters, such as earthquakes, floods, and tornadoes, has become routine, and the security function is normally a large part of the process. The need for the private sector to plan for unnatural disasters, such as civil disorder, was brought to the forefront in Los Angeles following the Rodney King verdict.

Security managers and their representatives can be a valuable link between law enforcement, the community, employee groups, and management. Providing timely assistance and resources can help an organization protect its personnel and assets during difficult and challenging times.

Michael Biggs is an investigator at the Chevron Refinery in El Segundo, CA. He is a member of ASIS.
COPYRIGHT 1992 American Society for Industrial Security
No portion of this article can be reproduced without the express written permission from the copyright holder.
Copyright 1992 Gale, Cengage Learning. All rights reserved.

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Title Annotation:Los Angeles, California
Author:Biggs, Michael
Publication:Security Management
Date:Oct 1, 1992
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