At the recently renamed New Era Field, a new era of anti-terrorist security dawns for the tens of thousands of football fans who flock to Buffalo Bills games in Orchard Park.
During all home games, Bills fans will see a couple of dozen SWAT team members, dressed in green fatigues and toting rifles as they patrol the stadium.
It also will be hard to miss 16 explosive-detecting dogs making their rounds.
And seven Bomb Squad members will be on hand, ready to respond quickly to any unattended or suspicious packages.
The regular-season home opener against the New York Jets on Thursday night will feature a beefed-up, anti-terrorist presence that began with the last three home games last season, following terror attacks in both Paris and San Bernardino, Calif.
Gallery: SWAT patrols at New Era Field
It’s all part of what Erie County sheriff’s officials and the Bills call the “new normal” for game day.
“My office had many of the same assets and personnel deployed at previous games, but after those devastating terrorist attacks, we honed the special services’ role and responsibilities to enable these units to react quicker to an incident,” Sheriff Timothy B. Howard said.
While it’s been 15 years since the horrific acts of Sept. 11, last November’s coordinated terror attacks in and near Paris drove home the message of how vulnerable large sports stadiums can be. Those acts included two people, one with a ticket to the France-Germany soccer game, detonating their explosive vests just outside Stade de France on Nov. 13.
That prompted Erie County sheriff’s officials, the Bills and the National Football League last fall to seek an enhanced anti-terrorist presence, both to discourage such acts and comfort more than 70,000 fans here.
The added layer of anti-terrorist security measures took effect at the Bills’ next home game, Dec. 6 against the Houston Texans.
“We decided we should add layers of protection, to make it as difficult as possible for the terrorists to commit their criminal acts,” said Erie County Sheriff’s Capt. William Cranston, who supervises the Special Services Division.
Those added protections continue this season, as the overall armed presence outside the stadium numbers over 250.
“Fans should feel very safe,” said Scott M. Joslyn, chief of the sheriff’s Police Services Division. “This is not a false sense of security. This is the best we can offer. This is the best security there is.”
Sheriff’s officials emphasized that the beefed-up security shouldn’t create any negative impact for fans.
“The added presence is not intended to impede the fans’ game experience,” Cranston said. “It’s just the opposite. It’s there to make sure they have a safe experience.”
Here are the key changes that went into effect last December and continue this season:
• A couple of dozen highly trained SWAT team members – from the Erie and Cattaraugus county Sheriff’s Offices – will be visible.
Fans will see them everywhere, Cranston said of the men dressed in green uniforms with hard-to-miss rifles slung over the front of their bodies.
Besides being a visible deterrent, the SWAT team members will be armed and ready to confront active shooters, suicide bombers or anyone else posing a grave threat to large numbers of fans.
The Federal Emergency Management Agency lists three levels of SWAT/tactical team training. The local crew at the Bills games has been trained and equipped at Type 1, the top one.
“It’s the highest level you can have,” Joslyn said. “That’s the beauty of it.”
• Sixteen explosives-detecting dogs will stay during the games.
They’ve always done pregame sweeps of the stadium, but now they’ll stick around until the majority of people have left the stadium.
“They are stationed at the gates, in parking lots, in the streets,” Cranston said. “They’re everywhere.”
Like the SWAT team members, the dogs have a dual purpose, sniffing out any possible explosives and providing constant visibility of a large security presence.
• Seven Bomb Squad technicians will be outside the stadium, many working on other patrol duties.
But they also will be readily available whenever other personnel or explosives-detecting dogs find unattended packages or anything that appears suspicious.
• There will be an increase in the number of sheriff’s deputies and deputized officers, up anywhere between 50 and 80 officers this year for a new total above 250.
• Every officer working outside New Era Field has received active-shooter training.
“So the guy [directing traffic] at Milestrip and Abbott is going to have that training on how to respond to an active shooter,” Cranston said.
Scott Zylka, the Erie County sheriff’s public information officer, and Cranston both discussed a key goal in these increased security measures. At a time when everyone’s aware of terrorist threats across the world, heightened – and more visible – security can help fans feel more comfortable taking their families to the stadium.
“We worry about security and safety, so the fans don’t have to worry about anything except having fun and cheering for the Bills,” Cranston said.
Bills and law enforcement officials also point to new metal detectors at every stadium gate this season, following a trial period at Gate 3 last year. Previously, fans had to submit to a hand-held wand. Fans still will have to take out their cellphones before going through the detectors, but they can keep their keys, wallets and loose change in their pockets.
“The metal detectors will be a more efficient process for fans to enter the gates,” said Andy Major, the Bills vice president of operations and guest experience.
Also, deputies working in the stadium parking lots will try to crack down on rules governing glass-bottle disposal. Anyone disobeying an order to properly dispose of a glass bottle or pour the contents into a plastic cup may be ticketed.
Bills officials want fans to arrive at the gates early because of the enhanced gate-screening process. Gates open 90 minutes before kickoff. Fans are encouraged to line up between 60 and 90 minutes before kickoff.