Security officials confident they’re prepared for crowds

Bomb sweeps are complete, counter-sniper teams are in position, and new crowd-management policies are in place as the nation’s capital readies for the arrival of hundreds of thousands to witness President Obama make history on Monday.

Though crowds for the 57th presidential inauguration are expected to be a fraction of the 1.8 million people who came four years ago, law enforcement officials from 42 departments have locked down D.C. streets, bridges and tunnels in hopes of thwarting any terrorist attacks. 

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“We’ve covered all of our bases,” said Senate Sergeant at Arms Terry Gainer, who is helping coordinate security for the day’s event. “We’ve certainly got everything in place to prevent any threat, or counter it.”

Getting the hordes of spectators and ticket holders through security checkpoints and into their appropriate seating areas without causing massive delays — like those that occurred in 2009 — has been one of inauguration planners’ biggest worries, said Gainer.

“The continued concern since 2009 was how to get people in, instead of keeping people out,” said Gainer, referencing the thousands of ticketed spectators who were stuck in the Third Street tunnel during Obama’s first inauguration.

Officials consulted with a crowd-management expert, closed the tunnel, increased signage and revised their screening techniques in hopes of keeping the crowds moving smoothly from the early morning hours into the evening, with public transportation operating on rush-hour schedules all day.

The Secret Service is taking the lead on securing the day’s events. And while no credible threats have been uncovered, there are several protests planned in parks throughout the city.

The 2009 after-action report of Obama’s first inauguration highlighted inter-agency communication gaps as one of the most significant problems. 

A multi-agency command center will house representatives from nearly every federal and local law enforcement team to create a two-way information hub for officials to feed and receive relevant on-the-ground intelligence. 

Officials are also planning to monitor social networking websites for potential problems that arise throughout the day.

The second inauguration is generally an easier operation from a security standpoint, said Fred Burton, the vice president of intelligence at the Stratfor intelligence firm. 

Burton worked on President Reagan’s first inauguration and was formerly with the Secret Service and the State Department.

“The threat posture is certainly not at the level it was during Obama’s first inauguration,” said Burton. 

“Usually, the second inauguration of a sitting president is a bit easier to manage because you’ve gleaned a lot of intelligence over the last four years, you know who all the usual suspects are and identified all of the threats ahead of time.”

The biggest security threats for an inauguration are the possibility of a “lone wolf” attacker or a terrorist group attacking a “soft target,” such as a hotel or restaurant that is outside of the secured zone, said Burton. But, he said, intelligence officials are so highly skilled, the possibility of such an attack is minimal.

“A group like al Qaeda very much wants to make its presence known to show they are still in the game, and any kind of explosion or incident during this time period would certainly captivate the world’s attention and be very symbolic,” said the former intelligence official. “But when you have the entire U.S. intelligence apparatus looking for the potential of threats, that’s something we’ve gotten pretty good at. The likelihood of something happening is highly remote.”

No official estimates have been given for the size of the crowd on Monday. But inauguration organizers have set up 1,500 port-a-potties along the National Mall, and waste-management specialists used that number to estimate officials are planning for as many as 500,000 people to show up.

Area airports, hospitals and hotels are also preparing for an onslaught of traffic. 

Reagan National, Dulles International and BWI airports are expecting to have longer baggage and security lines, and some airlines are adding flights, but overall they’re expecting a lower turnout than in 2009. 

Nevertheless, airports are bolstering their customer service staff and advising those flying to arrive as much as four hours before their flight.

Area hospitals are ready for small- and large-scale emergencies, giving staff who are working on Inauguration Day the option to arrive Sunday night and sleep on cots to avoid traffic and transportation delays. 

Last inauguration, Sen. Edward Kennedy (D-Mass.) suffered a seizure during the lunch after the swearing-in ceremony and was rushed to the Washington Hospital Center.

“We have a very good emergency-planning component with the federal government that actually led the way after 9/11 for preparing for big events,” said Matt Brock, a spokesman for the hospital.

“We have a ready-room right off of our ER that has stacks of cots, medicine and loads of supplies on standby just in case something big happens. We’re always planning for the big emergency, because we’re in Washington, D.C.”