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Vancouver's Winter Olympics: The Untold Story

Christopher Sands

Earlier this week I had the opportunity to visit Vancouver for a conference on trade and border security that was sponsored by the Pacific North West Economic Region, and organization of governments and businesses in both Canada and the United States. PNWER made a major effort to foster regional cooperation in advance of the 2010 Winter Olympic Games in Vancouver and nearby Whistler, British Columbia.

The U.S. Department of Homeland Security (DHS) identified the 2010 Olympic Games as a major test of event security cooperation with Canada as far back as 2005, when the U.S. and Mexican presidents met the Canadian prime minister in Texas to launch the Security and Prosperity Partnership for North America. Federal officials in the United States and Canada began discussing security for the 2010 Olympics then, and had the opportunity to test a number of ideas when the National Football League’s Super Bowl XL was hosted by the City of Detroit, the largest metropolitan area on the U.S.-Canadian border.

Preparations for the Olympics included coordination and planning undertaken by Integrated Border Enforcement Teams (IBETs) as well as the Integrated Maritime Enforcement Team (IMET) operating in the Vancouver area. These teams facilitate cooperation, coordination and intelligence sharing among federal, state/provincial, and local law enforcement and security agencies. Typically focused on threats of smuggling, gang-related activity, organized crime and terrorism, the IBETs and IMET provided a natural locus for Olympics security planning where trust had already been established.

At the border, where the Blaine (WA) – White Rock (BC) crossing between Seattle and Vancouver is regularly the third busiest crossing on the U.S.-Canadian border by traffic volume, U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) and the Canadian Border Services Agency made infrastructure improvements and arranged for full staffing of inspection booths for the two week period of the 2010 Olympic games. Last week, wait times were reported by PNWER to be averaging just 5 minutes, below the normal wait time on a typical busy summer weekend.

DHS and its Canadian federal counterpart, Public Safety Canada, showed an impressive willingness to try new ideas for the Olympics. At PNWER’s urging, border officials cooperated with tour bus operators who provided advance passenger manifest information prior to arriving at the border – just as airlines do for each cross-border flight – so that travelers can be pre-screened, interviewed as needed, and more quickly transit the U.S.-Canada border en route to the Games.

National security and law enforcement personnel in both countries deserve our praise and thanks for their impressive efforts to protect athletes and the general public at the Olympics. Some will naturally credit the opportunity for advance planning that comes with a major event like the Super Bowl or the Olympics for the smooth operation of security measures at the border and at the events themselves. Others are likely to point to the surge in resources, from funding to personnel, available to secure a big event.

What is often missed is the benefit of close cooperation between federal, state/provincial, and local governments and their respective law enforcement agencies. The scale of major events focuses the minds of all involved and can help to overcome turf battles and reluctance to share information and resources.

The untold story of the Vancouver Olympics is that, not only was security and border facilitation excellent during the Games, superior performance is possible even when the athletes go home, at any ordinary border crossing, when federal security officials seek local input, adapt to local needs and conditions, and are granted operational and resource flexibility to try out new ideas. Decentralizing the management of the border to allow local federal officials the freedom to partner with border stakeholders works.

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