How D.C. protects rallies like the March for Our Lives

WASHINGTON — By 10 a.m. Saturday, for the March for Our Lives rally in Washington, D.C., the biggest issue of concern at the district’s emergency operation center had to do with rogue buses.

“Bus drivers are just dropping kids off downtown without stopping at RFK,” said Nicole Peckumn, director of communications for the D.C. Homeland Security and Emergency Management Agency. The Robert F. Kennedy Memorial stadium, just 2 miles east of the U.S. Capitol, was the designated drop-off and pickup spot for buses transporting protesters from around the country to Saturday’s event.

People arrive for the March for Our Lives rally against gun violence in Washington, DC. (Photo: Nicholas Kamm/AFP/Getty Images)

Hundreds of thousands of people were assembling in Washington to march for gun-policy reform in the aftermath of last month’s mass shooting in Parkland, Fla., that left 17 people dead. Survivors of the massacre would soon give emotional speeches, advocates like Martin Luther King Jr.’s 9-year-old granddaughter would speak out against guns, and singers like Miley Cyrus, Ariana Grande and Jennifer Hudson would perform to cheering crowds.

But at the operations center, officials were monitoring the 300 buses that had already registered with the agency staff manning the RFK parking lot. Several bus drivers had apparently started dropping off protesters downtown, near the site of the rally.

Chris Rodriguez, director of the D.C. Homeland Security and Emergency Management Agency, talks to members of his staff outside the agency’s Mobile Command Unit stationed near the National Mall during the March for Our Lives in D.C. on March 24, 2018. (Photo: Caitlin Dickson/Yahoo News)

“That will have to be a Nixle message,” said Peckumn, referring to the notification service used by local police departments and offices of emergency management around the country to deliver up-to-date alerts via text message.

A few minutes later, they blasted out a text message to the 12,000 people who had subscribed to the agency’s message service. “ALERTDC: Dropped off by bus? Make sure you have your pick up location saved on your phone,” it read.

“One thing that’s very concerning with an event like this is families getting separated,” said agency Director Chris Rodriguez. “When you have kids, when you have younger people, we have to make sure we’re messaging so that people know how to reunite.”

Chris Rodriguez, director of the D.C. Homeland Security and Emergency Management Agency, points to real-time traffic updates and other data being broadcast at the agency’s command center ahead of the March for Our Lives rally in Washington, D.C. on March 24, 2018. (Photo: Caitlin Dickson/Yahoo News)

Representatives from more than 75 local, regional and federal agencies — from the D.C. metro police to the National Guard to the Red Cross and FEMA — converged Saturday morning on the command center to coordinate the logistical and emergency response for the day’s event. Security planning for the rally had begun just four weeks earlier.

As the official kickoff to the march — which had turned out to be more of a massive, stationary rally — approached, crowds of people began to appear on the grid of screens on the wall of the command center streaming live video footage from the streets and metro stations. Rodriguez stood for a moment and watched as real-time traffic updates and other data were broadcast across another grid of screens on the same wall.

In one corner of the wall, a graph projected the growing number of riders leaving metro stations across the city compared to the static number of riders from those same stations during last year’s Women’s March, which drew approximately a million people. The organizers of Saturday’s March for Our Lives had estimated a crowd of 500,000 in Washington.

Protesters fill Pennsylvania Avenue, as seen from the Newseum, during the March for Our Lives rally in support of gun control in Washington, Saturday, March 24, 2018. (Photo: Jose Luis Magana/AP)

“We’ve learned a lot from the Women’s March,” said Rodriguez, citing the need for a designated lane for emergency service vehicles to get in and out of the crowd, more portable toilets, accessible water and additional medical service stations that also serve as reunification tents for children who might get separated from their families.

Rodriguez’s biggest concern for a major event like this, he said, is crowd control and the possibility of terrorism. There had been no permits submitted for counterprotests ahead of Saturday’s march, but, he noted, “of course, there’s always the potential for spontaneous protesters.”

By the time the rally had ended Saturday afternoon, Rodriguez had received reports of a total of five children who had been separated from their families, all of whom had been quickly reunited.

“It was a pretty uneventful event,” he said, relieved. “That’s what we want, a nonevent.”


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