Air, Sea, Land: No Detail Left Unplanned

Domestic preparedness is nothing new to emergency planners in Baltimore, Maryland. Months before the historic invasion of the Baltimore harbor by British naval ships during the War of 1812, the citizens of Baltimore took the actions needed to prepare their city for the impact of what some historians later described as “the battle that saved America.” Taking defense of the city into their own hands, those citizens formed the “Committee of Vigilance and Safety” and used it to train Maryland militias and individual volunteers, coordinate the construction of forts, allocate the scarce human and financial resources available, and manage the logistics involved in distributing arms, pay, military equipment, and even coffins.

Two hundred years later, a new generation of Baltimore’s citizens were tasked with preparing the city for what would be one of the largest events in the history of Baltimore: the 2012 Star-Spangled Sailabration, commemorating the beginning of the war that still defines the Chesapeake region. As in 1812, the Bicentennial Sailabration was an all-hands effort that encompassed an entire city, requiring a high level of coordination between citizens, volunteers, professional planners, and Baltimore leaders to make the event a success.

And a major success it was. In June 2012, Baltimore hosted the largest national celebration commemorating the Bicentennial of the beginning of the War of 1812, setting into motion a two-year series of nationwide events that will culminate – again, in Baltimore – in 2014, commemorating not only the Battle of Baltimore and the writing of the Star Spangled Banner but also the end of that war.

The weeklong (13-19 June) Sailabration, which included an international maritime festival and air show in Baltimore’s harbor, brought more than 1.5 million visitors to the city in addition to an estimated 45 naval vessels and tall ships, nearly six thousand U.S. and international sailors, and four days of air shows by the U.S. Navy’s Blue Angels, which included “flyovers” of downtown Baltimore. More than 700 Sailabration volunteers organized dozens of concerts, reenactments, skydiving events, tactical military presentations, VIP appearances and speeches, and military community-service events, all of them attended by a myriad of federal, state, and local elected officials, foreign dignitaries, and other VIPs.

Baltimore is an experienced city when it comes to special events. A tourism hot-spot, the Inner Harbor alone accommodates more than 15 million visitors per year and regularly hosts marathons, horse races, regattas, the Grand Prix car race, and scores of other events drawing hundreds of thousands of visitors. Baltimore’s leadership fully understands the importance of advance planning, cooperation and coordination, and building relationships.

Even so, the Star-Spangled Sailabration presented new and unique challenges that required the collaboration of agencies from all levels of government as well as hundreds of planners. To be truly successful, the Sailabration required a comprehensive planning and coordination effort by the City of Baltimore and its surrounding counties, many state and federal agencies, the U.S. Navy, U.S. Coast Guard, nearly one-hundred private and non-profit businesses, and dozens of impacted communities.

The Sailabration also was an event of numerous “firsts”: Baltimore’s first air show, repeated for four days; the berthing of 45 U.S. and international tall ships; the influx of more than 1.5 million visitors; and the unprecedented planning and coordination effort required to ensure the safety, comprehensive contingency plans, and seamless execution. To do all that, three major government entities – the U.S. Navy, the U.S. Coast Guard, and the City of Baltimore – had to work meaningfully together for the first time.

Air, Sea, Land: Who Has the Plan? 

The U.S. Navy, U.S. Coast Guard, and the City of Baltimore – air, sea, and land – are all large, diverse organizations, and veterans in the special events process. Each also is accustomed to following its own procedures for special events planning. Recognizing that each had its own systems and protocols, and operated in its own silos, it was of particular importance that each agency become more dynamic, more flexible, and more cognizant of one another’s needs. For the event to be successful, all three agencies had to work together. The challenge, therefore, was determining how to plan and operate as one overarching entity.

A full year before the Sailabration, a core Baltimore-based planning team – the Sailabration executive committee – was formed to oversee the coordination of all activities leading up to the historic event. From neighborhood relations to logistics and security for the air show, the Sailabration executive committee established more than a dozen planning groups, each with its own subcommittees that were loosely organized under a larger quasi-governmental state commission tasked with carrying out the planning for the War of 1812 Bicentennial celebrations throughout the state of Maryland.

The Sailabration itself was centered around Baltimore’s Inner Harbor, and the executive committee focused its efforts on three distinct geographical command areas: the Waterside Area of Operations (Water); the Baltimore Area of Operations (Land); and the Air Show Area of Operations (Air). Each planning group was made up of 20-30 agencies, all of which were required to plan for their own operations as well as to coordinate those plans with the other agencies involved. From mapping the dredging operations in the harbor to ensuring the safe passage of large ships and small water craft to writing the contingency plans needed to protect the health of U.S. and international sailors, Baltimore planning started on the right track.

However, there was an unexpected “kink” in the planning effort. As the executive committee quickly found out, the Navy also had started its own planning structure for the Sailabration – an event that involved many of the service’s own air and sea assets. The Navy’s initiative was more than a simple duplication of effort. Two different event action plans were being drafted that included duplicate contact lists, planning lists, and even event schedules.

Recognizing the redundancy and the numerous complications that might result, the executive committee acted fast, reaching out to its federal partners in the Navy and Coast Guard to avoid what might otherwise have been a planning disaster. The Baltimore City Mayor’s Office of Emergency Management (MOEM), an active member in the executive committee, was recognized as the agency probably best suited to pull together the two planning processes, and all the disparate stakeholders, into one unified plan.

To do just that, MOEM centralized all plans, maps, and meeting notes in one secure, online location, working closely with the Navy and Coast Guard liaisons. The planners from all agencies downloaded and uploaded documents to and from a shared server, moderated by MOEM. That important step eliminated the need to email documents, which posed the risk of circulating out-of-date plans. All planners had permission to view most documents, although certain sensitive documents (such as police deployments) were password-protected. Global information system planners collected and merged all maps; and MOEM merged the contact lists and schedules into a single (and frequently updated) document.

Acting as a central clearing house, MOEM also made sure that all stakeholders had access to the most up-to-date, relevant plans and information, which streamlined the execution of the event through a unified command structure.

Air, Sea, Land: Who Has Command? 

The extensive planning process was necessary because the location, size, and broad geographic scope of the Sailabration required government agencies and private partners to share the authority and jurisdiction needed to coordinate public safety and security. The complexity and unique needs of air, sea, and land operations required each of those components, though, to operate its own individual command posts.

The concept of area command is not a common practice in Baltimore. However, it was essential for the Sailabration – primarily to: (a) ensure interagency coordination; (b) efficiently use one another’s resources; (c) promote effective information sharing; and (d) facilitate a safe multi-agency/multi-jurisdictional response.

Five area command posts were established, strategically located to meet the needs of all operations:

  • Baltimore Area of Operations, responsible for land events;
  • Waterside Area of Operations, operated by the U.S. Coast Guard, responsible for water events;
  • Air Show/Martin State Airport Operations, responsible for air-show events;
  • Navy Command, responsible for naval events, personnel, and vessels; and
  • Fort McHenry Command, responsible for security of the large crowds and VIPs on location.

Each area command shared a common set of objectives and was led by an incident commander, who could communicate with other command posts via landline and radio. Because of the size of the event and the multi-jurisdictional responsibilities involved, the state emergency operations center at the Maryland Emergency Management Agency was activated to: (a) serve as the unified area command; (b) hold and update plans; (c) organize briefings and conference calls; (d) monitor weather conditions; (e) facilitate information sharing; and (f) convene all incident commanders in the event of a crisis.

Operational interactions between the area command posts were carried out through the liaison officers (Fire, Police, U.S. Coast Guard, U.S. Navy, and MOEM representatives) assigned to each area command post. The use of Central Maryland’s interoperable 800 MGz radio system allowed each area command post to instantaneously communicate with the others, with their own forces in the field, with a broad spectrum of other state and federal agencies, and with private-sector partners who were provided radios.

To ensure that all public safety personnel received updated information and changes, a one-page event memo was created daily and distributed to everyone in the field. The executive committee also established an offsite media center to register and coordinate the large number of reporters and news teams. The media center also coordinated with the Joint Information Center (JIC), located in the Baltimore Area Command, to respond to any urgent news. The media center and the JIC, working in close coordination with the police and fire departments, and other city and state agencies, used social media tracking software toentify any actual or possible problems that might occur.

The ability to centralize, secure, consolidate, and share documents during the planning process allowed all agencies to plan and coordinate their own activities within a common operating picture. The use of area commands allowed all stakeholders to share resources, instantly communicate across jurisdictions, and, at the same time, focus on their separate missions.

What at first seemed like an immense, and perhaps impossible, planning effort turned out to be one of Baltimore’s largest, safest, and most successful events. In September 2014, Baltimore will again take center stage: The Sailabration will return to Maryland to celebrate the 200th anniversary of the end of the War of 1812, commemorate the defense of the nation, and honor the birth of the national anthem. Thanks to the hard work and dedication already demonstrated by those responsible for the success of the 2012 event, the city of Baltimore and its partners will be fully prepared in 2014.

Scott L. Brillman

Scott L. Brillman is a lieutenant with the Baltimore City Fire Department and the Director of Special Events for the Baltimore City Mayor’s Office of Emergency Management. He led the Baltimore planning teams last summer in one of the largest planned events in Baltimore’s history, the 2012 Star Spangled Sailabration. He also oversees the City’s Emergency Operation Centers and in that capacity has helped manage the city’s response to several major disasters in past years, including the recent derecho (severe thunderstorms and wind). Prior to assuming his current post, he served as a paramedic and instructor with the Baltimore City Fire Department. He also now serves as a medical specialist on Maryland’s Urban Search and Rescue Task Force (MD-TF2) – and previously assisted the City of New Orleans twice – in the responses to Hurricane Katrina and Hurricane Gustav. He is a graduate of both the Johns Hopkins University and the University of Maryland, Baltimore County, and can be reached at



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