Americans have spent the better part of March trying to guess who will be in the Final Four and which team will ultimately win.

Glendale’s emergency management department has focused on the NCAA basketball tournament, but with a different set of questions that revolve around what-ifs and worst-case scenarios.

Government agencies ranging from public safety to public works are tasked with expecting the unexpected and imagining the unimaginable.

They need to consider these things before they happen because lives are on the line if they don’t. Some 76,000 college basketball fans are expected to descend on the Glendale stadium for the climax to March Madness on Saturday and Monday. Even more fans without tickets are likely to attend festivities around the stadium.

It’s a major responsibility, but not one that rests solely on Glendale’s shoulders.

  • Police and fire departments from across the Valley provide assistance during a major event like the Final Four. 
  • The Department of Public Safety handles highway traffic.
  • And the FBI and Department of Homeland Security agents monitor potential threats on a national scale.

And it’s not just law enforcement. Transit departments monitor city traffic and alter traffic lights depending on the situation. Maricopa County Public Health staff monitor events for signs of contagions. Representatives from APS and SRP are on standby to help public safety officials with power-related issues.

Glendale Police Chief Rick St. John said large cities such as Houston have the resources to handle everything internally, but “midlevel” cities such as Glendale need interagency partnerships to lean on.

“So we have coalition partners — 13 different agencies that have partnered with us under intergovernmental agreements and they work for us for those events,” St. John said.

The coalition came together when the city hosted its first Super Bowl in 2008 and has evolved through college football bowl games and championships, major concerts, a second Super Bowl in 2015 and even a WrestleMania.

It’s a massive interagency web tasked with catching every conceivable threat without getting tangled.

That’s where the Emergency Operations Center comes in.

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The off-court activity hub

Rows of tables, chairs and computers curve around the room in several “V” formations.Ten wall-mounted TVs are tuned to local and national news stations, satellite weather maps and fire dispatch websites. This glowing information collage can be seen from anywhere in the room, as there aren’t any pillars to obstruct one’s movement or view inside the city’s Emergency Operations Center.

Support staff can patch radios from other agencies into their frequency should an emergency demand additional specialists. Maps and blueprints of the stadium and surrounding buildings line the walls, and massive printers ensure more are only a few keystrokes away.

The operations center opened shortly before Glendale hosted its first Super Bowl nearly a decade ago.

Director Mark Hubler said such centers began popping up after tragedies such as 9/11 and Hurricane Katrina left emergency response teams scrambling. FEMA got involved with the DHS, and presidential directives demanded improved  interoperability between agencies.

For Hubler, a key advantage of Glendale’s operations center is face-to-face communication.

“The benefit of having everyone in the same room is the benefit of face-to-face communication versus a telephone call or email which can always be misinterpreted if there’s no (one) to actually work through some of those things,” Hubler said. “When there’s one person in charge of logistics, and yet he needs to get stuff from public works and from water department and from the fire department and from PD — in here, it’s just a matter of walking over and getting those people together and having that conversation.”

Hubler said upper-level chiefs from police, fire and traffic departments will always be in the center while officials from other departments are “on-call” to reduce costs. He explained that most emergency scenarios call for those departments initially and the other departments activate when additional information is gathered.

Years in the planning

Glendale has known it would host the Final Four since 2014. The long lead time is intentional. Hosting major events like the Super Bowl and Final Four can take years of planning. Everyone needs to know what their duties are and when they need to get done.

It’s Jannine Wilmoth’s job to ensure everyone knows their job.

As Glendale’s emergency management coordinator, Wilmoth spends her days developing and maintaining the city’s reams of emergency plans. She reviews the appropriate plans with the appropriate staff to ensure everyone knows what they’re doing. The training sessions also breed relationships between emergency staff, meaning few people are strangers come game day.

“It’s like planning for a multiday wedding,” Wilmoth said.

Multiday challenge

Glendale’s no stranger to hosting major events, but the Final Four presents a unique challenge in being a multiday event.

The denser, elongated schedule makes it harder to predict how many people will be where and for how long. Those leaving the stadium will likely come back, meaning additional security scans and searches. The same goes for delivery trucks.

The multiday stream of activity makes it difficult to ensure a secure, locked-down location — such as the University of Phoenix Stadium — remains so. It also means city employees working long hours and multiple shifts to keep everything running smoothly. It’s enough to stretch any city’s resources, though Glendale says it’s prepared.

Of course, that comes with a cost.

Cost to Glendale

Protecting tens of thousands of people isn’t cheap. Police officers, firefighters, paramedics and dozens of other positions will be out in full force during the Final Four. Add overtime to the increased staff covering a multiday event, and you have a bill with a lot of zeroes.

Glendale earmarked $1.1 million in its Final Four operations budget, though city officials say that figure is based on “maximum-staffing scenarios,” and expect the actual expenditure will be far lower. Even if costs meet or exceed the $1.1 million figure, Glendale City Manager Kevin Phelps says the benefits of hosting a major event like the Final Four far outweighs the costs — even if you can’t quantify all of them.

“I think it’s really easy and correct to say that the overall (benefit) — when you look at all the benefit to the community in measure — certainly outweighs our investment in protecting the public and what we commit in public-safety resources,” Phelps said.

Phelps said Glendale hosts most major events in Arizona and that involves a responsibility to protect everyone.

3 tips for fans  

Hubler said he didn’t want patrons worrying about what’s going in on the Emergency Operations Center — that’s his job. He and others just want everyone to have a good time. Some suggestions include:

  1. Plan your drive. Figure out where you’re going to park and how you’ll get there before starting your car. Not every street will be open, meaning your usual route to the stadium might not work. GPS apps like Google Maps have begun to recognize special events, but don’t always know which roads and intersections are open.  
  2. Arrive early. Major events like the Final Four bring in a lot of people, which means more vehicles and pedestrians than you’re likely used to. Car accidents and traffic jams are practically a guarantee, so account for that when planning your departure time. 
  3. Know what you can and can’t bring. Like NFL games, fans will need to use a clear plastic bag, as opposed to a larger purse or tote, to carry things into the stadium and related events. Tiny clutch purses are also allowed, though you’ll want to make sure they’re 5.5 inches by 8.5 inches or smaller.


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