In anticipation of a possible Chicago Bears football team move to Arlington Heights, police and fire department officials there have taken a series of trips to major sports stadiums in Los Angeles, Las Vegas and Dallas looking to learn how those cities’ emergency responders handle and respond to incidents, Chicago Tribune/Pioneer Press learned.
Eight senior police and fire officials made a total of four trips to observe emergency response teams at other stadiums, the police and fire leaders told Pioneer Press. They traveled in October, November and December, officials confirmed.
They observed security at a mixed-use entertainment district and operations before and after football games and concerts and shadowed other emergency response personnel as those workers made decisions about how to handle everything from a slip-and-fall incident, to an arrest, to wholesale cancellation of a concert.
Both departments made trips to SoFi Stadium in Inglewood, California, where the Los Angeles Rams play. The police team also visited AT&T Stadium, in the Dallas suburb of Arlington Texas, where the Dallas Cowboys football team plays; T-Mobile Arena in Las Vegas, where the Golden Knights hockey team plays, and Allegiant Stadium, the Raiders football team’s home.
Each trip cost about $3,000 and lasted between two and four days, officials said. Police Chief Nicholas Pecora said the department used federal asset forfeiture money to pay for his department’s travel, while Fire Chief Lance Harris said the fire team funded its trip using money from the department’s Community Risk Reduction Fund.
The trips were all in preparation for a proposed development that could be a decade or longer away — if it comes at all.
In September 2021, the Bears signed a $197.2 million purchase agreement with now-closed Arlington International Racecourse owner Churchill Downs. The team hasn’t closed on the property, but Arlington Heights Police and Fire department leaders say they’re doing their own due diligence, just as the Bears are doing theirs.
“You can read a book, you can read a white paper, but we felt the best way to get a handle on this early on and see what we may have to do one day was to be there and observe firsthand how these professionals do their job,” Pecora said.
The Bears organization has proposed a $5 billion development for the 326-acre property, featuring a stadium and mixed-use commercial, residential and entertainment district.
Pecora said a project of such a scale prompted him and and his staff to look to other municipalities to see how their first responders handle mass entertainment events.
“Our way of policing is going to change when you essentially double the population of the Arlington Heights community on a Sunday morning,” Pecora said. Most NFL games are played on Sunday.
“Not only do you have to maintain the same delivery of core services to the community, there’s an additional expectation that you provide security at these events attended by thousands of people,” the police chief said.
Pecora, police Deputy Chief Greg Czernecki, Sergeant Joe Murphy and Detective Brian Clarke made three visits to the other cities that host stadiums, Pecora said.
At AT&T Stadium, which Pecora said was a useful case study because the stadium also has an entertainment district attached to it, the officers came away with the distinct sense that a football game, “from a police operational perspective, is not the three hours you see on TV.”
The police personnel arrived for game day at 6 a.m., the chief said, and spent the day shadowing their counterparts in the Game Day Operations Center, or GDOC.
At 6 a.m., the main concern for law enforcement is tailgaters, Pecora explained.
“The bicycle officers showed up and they started patrolling the area on their bikes because that early, it’s here comes all the tailgaters [who] spend a couple hours barbecuing out in the parking lots before the 1 p.m. kickoff,” he said.
Inside the GDOC, Pecora said “we could see the decision-makers making their decisions and making their assignments.”
The operations center served as a central hub for first responders who were being sent to deal with all manner of issues that crop up during a football game, from health-related incidents to accidents to disorderly conduct.
“There’s one call to the operation center and from there, necessary services are dispatched,” he said. “So if there’s a spill in the bathroom, that’s going to create a slip-fall life safety issue. From that center, they’re dispatching somebody to rectify the situation.”
Pecora said his visiting team witnessed only one arrest at the three sites they visited: that of a person who was selling counterfeit Cowboys merchandise.
Village fire officials had a similar shadowing setup when they visited SoFi stadium. Harris said he, Deputy Chief of Operations Kurt Hansleman, Division Chief of Training Dave Strojny and Division Chief of Community Risk Reduction Dave Roberts spent a game “shadowing their command staff in different positions, from the incident commander to the EMS director… [to see] how they handled all their emergency responses.”
Harris emphasized that fire officials were in Inglewood, just outside the city of Los Angeles, to work and conduct research.
“We literally saw four plays a game because the only time we saw any plays in the game was when we were passing through and could look out a window or something,” he said.
Over the course of their day with the emergency responders at SoFi, Harris said the team made a number of observations about how first responders who staff major sporting events manage the crowds, prevent incidents and address ones that do arise.
“They offer EMS [emergency medical service] inside and outside the stadium,” Harris said. “So they offer several bike teams of paramedics that start out in the parking areas. And then as the need shifts from the parking into the stadium, those teams work into the stadium.”
Among the risks officers observed the team managing were slip and fall accidents, fires that resulted from tailgate cooking, people who needed medical attention after drinking too much and vehicle accidents.
Among the tools they saw deployed or at the ready to address these incidents were hazardous materials and dog teams, and quick-response all terrain vehicles for paramedics, Harris said.
Football stadiums may only host football games eight to 10 days out of each year and other mass entertainment events, like concerts and conventions.
When the Arlington Heights police officers reached Las Vegas on a Friday in October, T-Mobile Arena was set to host a pop band concert, Pecora said.
“Because Las Vegas is so dense, there’s a parking garage here and a parking garage here,” Pecora said. “And parking garages offer open air elevated platforms.”
With last summer’s mass shooting in Highland Park in mind, Pecora said he, Czernecki and their colleagues paid particular attention to how Las Vegas police staffed the entrances to the parking garages and the myriad doors that allow entrance and exit to the stadium itself.
Village police also watched a decision-making process that led to the cancellation of a concert that had been set to take place at one of the city’s festival grounds later that weekend.
The weather forecast was predicting winds up to 65 miles an hour, Pecora said.
“They were going to hit right in the area where the 65,000 people were going to be all day Saturday at this all-day concert venue,” he said.
That forecast prompted the public safety staff managing the event to recommend that its host cancel.
“The lesson that we learned is [that] from a liability perspective, you’ve got to go in there informed and say from a police department perspective, from a firefighter perspective, from the city of Las Vegas perspective, we’re recommending that you, the event promoter, cancel this event,” Pecora said.
The fire department personnel who went to SoFi Stadium spent the first part of their visit going over incident action plans for different situations, including for NFL games and other sports matches, concerts and monster truck events, Harris said.
“They went over incident action plans with us that they had written for a regular Sunday afternoon or Monday night or Thursday night football games along with hosting in the Super Bowl,” Harris said.
If the Bears do close on the former racetrack property and build a stadium there, thinking through plans for “nightmare scenarios” will be a major focus for village first responders, Hanselman said.
“Let’s say we do have a mass casualty where we have 20 patients that need to be transported to the hospital,” Hanselman said. “Well, we transport the majority of our patients to Northwest Community Hospital, but if we have 20 ambulances come in, it’s not that easy anymore because Northwest Community Hospital can’t take all 20 patients.”
Incident response planning will begin inside the stadium, officers said, but will stretch well beyond a game or event site or even beyond the entertainment district.
“There’s a lot of coordination that takes up a lot of staffing at the chief officer level,” Harris said.
Hiring and further questions
Currently, the Arlington Heights Police Department has 140 employees and 110 sworn officers. The fire department has 108 sworn firefighters.
Pecora said it was likely that the department will need to increase staffing in the event the Bears purchase and develop the property, although he pointed out that “there’s no abacus or slide ruler” to tell a department how much they’ll need for manpower for a stadium that comes to town.
“We’re going to definitely need some help,” he said.
However, Pecora said, that help might not come in the form of full-time officers added to the Arlington Heights Police Department.
Instead, the department may partner with neighboring municipalities and allow those police officers to work in the village, he said. However, he added, it’s still very early to even discuss such an agreement with other villages.
On the fire side, one major outstanding question is whether village personnel would be responsible for emergency response within a hypothetical stadium as well as outside it, according to officials. Many stadiums use privately contracted emergency services for issues within the stadium structure itself.
If the department is only asked to address emergency calls outside the stadium, Harris said it wouldn’t be too much of a stretch to incorporate the extra volume into department operations.
“We feel very confident that we can handle those, with probably some increased staffing on game day, because that’s what we do every day,” he said.
But for now, both the police and fire departments remain in the information-gathering phase, officials say.
The land purchase deal could still fall through, they noted.
Currently, the police department is considering a trip to Foxboro, Mass. to see how a police department with 35 officers manages a New England Patriots game.
Arlington Heights fire department personnel, on the other hand, said they won’t take any more research trips until the Bears’ plans come into clearer focus.
But the trip they took already was instructive, Hanselman said.
“Going to [SoFi] helped us identify the questions we need to ask,” he said.