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Security experts after Vegas shooting: 'You cannot prevent something like this'

Police officers stand at the scene of a shooting near the Mandalay Bay resort and casino on the Las Vegas Strip, Sunday, Oct. 1, 2017, in Las Vegas. Multiple victims were being transported to hospitals after a shooting late Sunday at a music festival on the Las Vegas Strip. (AP Photo/John Locher)

In the wake of the deadliest mass shooting in modern U.S. history, experts in event security and counterterrorism have a somewhat depressing response for those wondering whether a similar attack can be stopped in the future.

“I’m going to be honest with you,” said Jeffrey Slotnick, an enterprise security risk consultant. “You cannot prevent something like this.”

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At least, you cannot prevent it at the point when a gunman like Stephen Paddock is pointing a gun at a country music festival audience from hundreds of feet away. Before Paddock reached the Mandalay Bay Casino on Sunday night with nearly a dozen weapons, however, there may have been opportunities to head off the attack if those around him knew what to look for.

Even accepting that reality, Slotnick stressed that there are steps that can be taken to mitigate the risk and the damage if it does occur, as movie theaters did after the 2012 Aurora theater shooting. Studying how Paddock carried out the attack could point to new policies and technologies that might have made a difference.

“There’s actually some very good technologies out that there that are capable of detecting shot location,” he said, noting one example that would have assisted in tracking down the shooter.

There were still many unanswered questions on Monday afternoon, not the least of which was why Paddock launched the attack. ISIS claimed through its Amaq news agency that he was one of its “soldiers” and a recent convert to Islam, but authorities in Nevada have cast doubt on that prospect.

ISIS made a similar rapid claim of responsibility for an incident at a Manila casino in June that turned out to have no connection to terrorism at all. Regardless of the inspiration, the tactics used in Las Vegas were simple and enormously effective.

“It really shows how easy it is to kill people if you have the intent and will to do so,” said Scott Stewart, vice president of tactical analysis at Stratfor, a global intelligence firm.

For authorities and security professionals focused on preventing future attacks, the specific motive is secondary.

“We are seeing an increase in mass casualty attacks in the United States by people who are motivated both by ideological causes and personal grievances…,” said John Cohen, a former counterterrorism coordinator for the Department of Homeland Security and a professor at Rutgers University. “Preventing these attacks must become the number one priority for federal, state and local authorities because they’re not going to end.”

A unique confluence of elements enabled Paddock to kill at least 58 people and injure more than 500 others.

“Let’s begin by analyzing the tactics that were used, so that we can back-end into efforts to prevent or minimize the risk of an event like this,” said Anthony Roman, president of Roman & Associates, an international investigation and risk management firm.

The concert was held in a contained outdoor location next to crowded high-rise hotels, creating an easy target for a rapid-fire weapon from an elevated position.

“What you have is similar to an Air Force’s killbox,” Roman said, “where you have a concentrated series of targets in a limited space, in a three-dimensional environment that you can shoot down into.”

Some risks are inherent to the setting of an outdoor event.

“It’s difficult because events and locations such as these are intended to be places where large groups of people congregate…. If you overly secure the location, you prevent it from carrying out the function it was originally intended to fulfill,” Cohen said.

The security measures often discussed after an attack on a soft target—increased screening, more security officers, barriers for vehicles—would have little impact on a scenario like what happened in Vegas. No amount of security screening or officer training would stop gunfire from hundreds of feet away and 32 stories above the ground from hitting people in an outdoor crowd.

“The crowd was secure,” Slotnick said. “It was a person who spent a lot of time thinking of what they were going to do and planning.”

Stewart cited security for the presidential inauguration as the ideal example, with counter-snipers, metal detectors, background checks on ticket-holders, and other precautions that successfully prevented any violence against attendees. The average outdoor concert or rally lacks the resources to provide that level of scrutiny, but there are lessons to be learned from the thoroughness of it.

“Obviously it has to be very holistic,” he said. “There are just so many threats.”

Incidents at recent events have illustrated many of those threats. A bomb detonated by a terrorist outside an Ariana Grande concert in Manchester, England in May raised questions about the extent to which concert audiences can be protected.

In Dallas last July, a shooter killed five police officers who were protecting a crowd of protesters. A number of terrorist attacks in Europe in the last year have involved vehicles driving into crowds at markets, festivals, or outside popular tourist attractions.

“You need to do your homework and have plans in place to counter them,” Stewart said, listing potential threats that include explosives, snipers, trucks, and drones.

Large-scale political rallies are becoming increasingly common in the U.S. and the fall weather will usher in a wave of outdoor activities, festivals, and markets that could provide fresh targets. Unlike concerts which typically have defined security perimeters and checkpoints where some sort of screening can take place, these events are even harder to protect.

“This is a real wakeup call for event planners,” Stewart said.

One of the many challenges is balancing security with the freedom people have become accustomed to at entertainment and vacation sites. Hotels might need to consider screening guests before they arrive or conducting physical searches upon entry.

“Those run deeply against the grain of vacation venues, but with this level of mass carnage, perhaps something has to change,” Roman said.

If the gunshots cannot be stopped at the moment of the attack, intervention may be more successful beforehand. For example, media reports indicate Paddock may have had as many as ten guns with him in his hotel room.

“Earlier in the attack cycle, this guy had to acquire all of these weapons,” Stewart said.

A gun shop owner in Utah told KUTV that Paddock purchased a shotgun from him. He apparently talked a lot about guns and asked a lot of questions.

Paddock also had to get his arsenal up to the 32nd floor of a popular and heavily trafficked hotel.

“Hotels are notoriously as a general rule reasonably ineffective at security,” said Roman, who has previous experience in hotel security. “There are exceptions and Las Vegas is one of those exceptions.”

In an effort to prevent robberies, cheating, and other illegal activity, Vegas hotels generally have very professional security teams headed by retired law enforcement. They also have many surveillance cameras and other electronic security measures in place. None of that was enough on Sunday night.

“The question in this case is, how did he transport such a large number of guns into the hotel and into his hotel room without arousing suspicion,” Roman said.

Cohen, who has conducted research on similar attacks, said there are suspicious behaviors exhibited by perpetrators prior to every one of them that could potentially be recognized by people around them.

“The best opportunity to stop an attack is when people who are associated with these individuals recognize and report the warning signs,” he said.

Suspects in mass casualty attacks are often people who have become disconnected with their communities, who have suffered recent failures and blame others for them, have been lashing out and exhibiting changes in social behavior, and have been spending more time on social media and the internet.

“These people were behaving in such a way that it caused concern to people who knew them,” Cohen said. The public needs to be better educated about recognizing those signs, and law enforcement needs to be better trained for responding to them.

Given the impossibility of preventing every potential attack, experts say the public needs better preparation for surviving such situations.

“Everybody needs to have a personal preparedness plan…. We should know what we’re going to do when the situation occurs, or at least have a good idea,” Slotnick said.

This includes knowing how you will communicate with your family and establishing a rendezvous point in the event your group gets separated. He also recommends carrying a basic first aid kit, a flashlight, and food in your car for an emergency.

Once an attack begins, experts advise following the standard guidance for an active shooter scenario: run, hide, fight—though with some caveats. Crowds rushing the exits of an arena or fenced-in area create an additional risk of trampling or being crushed against a barrier.

Roman cautioned against becoming trapped in a “fatal funnel” at egress points as the audience attempts to flee.

“They concentrate large numbers of people into hallway-like exits that compact huge numbers of concertgoers and provides an additional target-rich area,” he said.

If you determine you cannot safely and quickly exit the area, trash cans, tables, walls, or even curbs can provide protection from a sniper.

“You want to move to a position of cover the best you can,” Slotnick said.

Security experts acknowledge this is much easier said than done for the average person, but they say advance planning and thought is the key to avoiding freezing up when the bullets are flying.

“The first thing you don’t want to do is panic,” Slotnick said. “Don’t succumb to the panic, don’t succumb to the emotions around you.”

Identifying exit points and potential shelter upon entering a venue helps.

“It’s not that people should be afraid,” Cohen said. “But they should be aware. They should be vigilant…. That prepares the brain and makes it less likely that a person is going to freeze.”

According to Stewart, awareness is the key. Knowing that something can happen and knowing at least hypothetically what you would do if it does puts you in the right mindset.

“It’s kind of like shifting a standard vehicle,” he said. “If I try to go from first gear into fifth gear, I’m going to stall it.”

Even with a police response time that experts say was exemplary given the circumstances, their advice suggests that merely counting on law enforcement to save you from an attack on a soft target is unrealistic and unwise.

“We all have to self-educate,” Roman said.

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