Inauguration Security Will Be A Massive Task

Washington, D.C., is preparing for a massive influx of visitors next month. Barack Obama's inauguration may draw the largest crowd of any such event in American history. That brings some daunting security concerns.

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People moving around Washington during this holiday season may notice platforms already under construction on the west front of the U.S. Capitol. Those platforms face the National Mall. Next month, that vast open space may hold the biggest crowd ever to witness a presidential inauguration. NPR's Ari Shapiro reports on the security preparations.

ARI SHAPIRO: On election night, David Heyman watched hundreds of thousands of people fill Chicago's Grant Park. He saw crowds partying in the streets of Washington, D.C., and he thought to himself...

Mr. DAVID HEYMAN (Director and Senior Fellow, Homeland Security Program, Center for Strategic and International Studies): Wow, this is huge. I haven't seen this in decades in terms of election response. What's going to happen on Inauguration Day?

SHAPIRO: Heyman directs the Homeland Security Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies. Watching TV on election night, he did what anyone in his position would do. He sent a note to D.C. Police Chief Cathy Lanier.

Mr. HEYMAN: I said, you know, are you watching what's going on TV? Good luck January 20. She sent a note back saying that the crowds had been so wonderful here in D.C. that even though they were expecting a tremendous amount of crowds, it was a good experience and she was looking forward to it.

SHAPIRO: The next morning, Washington, D.C.'s congresswoman, Eleanor Holmes Norton, arrived at her office on Capitol Hill. Her constituents were already making their voices heard.

Representative ELEANOR HOLMES NORTON (Democrat, District of Columbia): And they shut down phones, wanting tickets to go to the inauguration. Then they shut down my server trying to get to me on tickets for the inauguration. It became clear that with or without tickets, people are coming in unprecedented numbers, and we better get ready for it.

SHAPIRO: The Secret Service is in charge of getting ready for it.

Mr. MALCOLM WILEY (Secret Service Spokesman): My name is Malcolm Wiley. I'm a Secret Service spokesman.

SHAPIRO: Is there another event that you can compare this to?

Mr. WILEY: Previous inaugurations.

SHAPIRO: Really?

Mr. WILEY: Certainly.

SHAPIRO: Even if - I know that you don't talk about numbers. Other people are talking about four million people, perhaps. If that were the scale, it would still be the same kind of model as previous inaugurations?

Mr. WILEY: It would be the same model. To give you an example, I mean, the inaugural parade happens on Pennsylvania Avenue. Understand, there's only so much sidewalk space on Pennsylvania Avenue. And so once we have filled that space and once we have gotten to a point where it's no longer safe to have people standing in those particular areas, then we'll have to close down the metal detectors.

SHAPIRO: Homeland security expert David Heyman says it's actually not very difficult to protect the president at an event like inauguration.

Mr. HEYMAN: What you really want to secure is the immediate area where the secure packages, that's the president and his family, that's where the dignitaries are. And you can secure small areas quite well for short periods of time. And that's what they're going to do.

SHAPIRO: The plan involves rooftop snipers, bomb-sniffing dogs, helicopters, metal detectors, and thousands of police officers, both in uniform and undercover. Homeland security officials say there are not any known threats for Inauguration Day, not even an increase in chatter. And frankly, homeland security experts will tell you that if terrorists want to attack the U.S., they're more likely to pick a day when the country has not invested millions of dollars in layer after layer of security. In addition to securing the president and dignitaries, David Heyman says the government also has to take care of a crowd of millions who are only in Washington for the day.

Mr. HEYMAN: On an average day, we get about 400 EMT calls. You're talking about probably doubling that - the number of emergency calls that go out for people needing an ambulance.

SHAPIRO: That may be a low estimate. After all, inauguration is in January. Congresswoman Eleanor Holmes Norton worries there may be cases of frostbite or worse.

Representative NORTON: We hear over and over what is becoming a cliche. I never thought this would happen in my lifetime. So there are going to be a lot of elderly people coming. And they are not prepared for what you're going to have to do, which is to walk a very long distance, because there will be no riding anywhere close to the Mall.

SHAPIRO: Norton wants the city to open up indoor venues to watch the inauguration like sports stadiums, churches, and concert halls. Otherwise, she says, the city might become so immobilized that instead of people feeling the joy of a historic celebration, they'll just feel that they've been had. Ari Shapiro, NPR News, Washington.

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