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Pan Am security: Officials working under 'Medium threat level' as Games approach

06/29/2015 05:00 EDT | Updated 06/28/2016 05:59 EDT
The upcoming Pan Am & Parapan Am Games in Toronto will not only be Canada's largest-ever sporting event, they will be the centre of the country's largest-ever security operation. 

While there are no known threats to the games,which take place in July and August, the security level has changed in the wake of attacks in Ottawa and Quebec last October, says Ontario Provincial Police Supt. Alison Jevons, the lead security planner for the Games.

"When we started this project years ago, we were at 'low.' Because the national threat level has gone up, we are now at 'medium.'"

The "medium" threat level was also determined during the lead-up to the Vancouver 2010 Olympics. According to a 2012 RCMP report, this allowed security teams the leeway to scale operations up or down depending on intelligence around the Olympic Games. 

Authorities have told CBC News they'll be monitoring potential extremist groups in the Greater Toronto Area around the clock.

As part of their duties, security officials travelled to other major events, including the Super Bowl in Arizona, the Boston Marathon and the 2011 Pan Am Games in Mexico, to observe their security protocols, says Insp. Brian Preston, who works for the Toronto Police Service and is responsible for securing more than half of the venues. 

As part of the observer team at other events, Preston and his colleagues came back with some ideas they're adopting for Toronto. 

For instance, Toronto Pan Am road events such as the marathon and some cycling competitions will have looped courses, ringed with so-called "Jersey barriers," which are concrete partitions, to keep any vehicles from crossing into the athletes' routes. 

Insp. Preston said the looped courses will also make them easier to secure and cause less of a strain on traffic compared to more traditional, linear road courses that wind through city streets.

Athletes will also be screened with metal detectors and have their luggage X-rayed when they check into the Athlete's Village. They'll pass through security checkpoints every time they go into that part of the city, which is closed off to the public.

Airport-style security

As for spectators, a team of more than 5,000 private security guards will screen people arriving at ticketed sports venues. 

"The best way to describe the experience is comparing it to airport-style security," said Derek Gagné of Contemporary Security Canada (CSC), which has the main private security contract for the Games.

Unlike at airports, however, where travellers are asked to keep an eye out for any suspicious activity, officials at these Games aren't openly canvassing the public for intelligence.

When asked about this, Insp. Preston said, "There are going to be multiple police officers around every venue, and [they'll] all be very approachable." Should anyone wish to report information, he said, "of course, we'll follow up on that."

In terms of public outreach, one of the key messages the police are stressing to Torontonians is that the Games are not a "security event," meaning the focus for spectators should be on sport, not law and order.

Some Torontonians are still wary after the G20 summit in 2010, which attracted some violent protest groups, like the Black Bloc. It also led to some citizens and protesters being rounded up in mass arrests and held for hours without charges before being released.

Supt. Jevons stressed that the Games will be about family fun, not security. "Just like when you go to a hockey game, you're not there to see the referee," she said.

"We're there, we have to be there, but we don't want people to remember the security. We want people to remember the athletes and the legacy."

Traffic the biggest worry

Security officials say their biggest concern isn't necessarily terrorism or weather, but rather the city's notorious gridlock.

Insp. Andy Norrie of Toronto Police said that's what keeps him up at night. "I worry [about] an athlete, who might be late or delayed to get to their sporting event," he said. "That's an obligation on us, to help get them there on time and have a great experience."

Toronto Police and the OPP have planned for this with squads of motorcycle officers who can sweep in and extricate VIPs and athletes from clogged highways if necessary.

A traffic command centre has also been set up, so officials can monitor highway cameras spread throughout the Toronto Region.

Even the Toronto Police force's marine unit is planning for traffic. Toronto's busy harbour hosts Pan Am & Parapan Am events like sailing and the swimming portion of the triathlon. 

"It's going to be very, very busy down here," said Staff Sgt. Gerry Klunder of the Toronto Police Marine Unit. "Boats come in from all over Ontario basically to, you know, enjoy Toronto's harbour. Potentially, they're going to interfere with the course." 

Klunder said his officers are being assigned to each on-water event to keep over-eager spectators from getting too close.

Geography will be another challenge for the security teams, as venues are spread out across Southern Ontario. All security officials will be able to communicate with each other in real time through the RCMP's emergency management system.

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