Meet the Leeds First Direct Arena security team keeping visitors safe
From pop legends and rock stars to awards ceremonies and conferences, the First Direct Arena in Leeds has welcomed events of all shapes and sizes since opening in 2013.
And while the crowds they attract are as varied as the acts themselves, the one constant is the need to ensure each and every audience member can enjoy their night safely.
The task of keeping watch over sell-out events attended by up to 13,000 people falls to general manager Jen Mitchell, head of operations Martin McInulty and his security team.
“The key thing for us is we risk assess everything individually so we’re tailoring everything for that individual performance,” Ms Mitchell said.
“For example, on the conference side we know a lot more about the audience. It’s targeted generally at a specific set of customers. For a family show and a theatre type audience, we have a base level of security and then we’ll risk assess it. It’s basically going to be less risky.”
Many of the concerts and gigs require a similar approach, but other events such as the boxing present a higher risk.
Mr McInulty said: “It’s probably one of the higher risk events that we do but also some acts such as Liam Gallagher that maybe attract a younger and more excitable audience.
“With the boxing, we work very closely with the emergency services and the police and, for that particular event, we will have police on site. I know they welcome that sort of level of security.”
In deciding what level of security might be needed, the team draws not only on previous experience but also on information shared by other arenas with earlier dates on a particular tour.
They might flag up issues with the behaviour of some fans or have picked up on professional thieves following a tour, taking advantage of the large crowds to pickpocket.
Mr McInulty said: “What we do on those instances is tell our security team beforehand. Sometimes we’ll have images of the thieves.
“We also employ some plain clothes security on the standing floor and generally they’ll be there to stop anything.”
The theft of phones and wallets tends to be more of an issue in that part of the arena, where people do not think twice if someone brushes up against them in the crowd and they are too busy gazing up at the stage to worry about belongings.
Another tactic used by the arena is to issue additional wristbands to all those with tickets for the standing floor.
“If we have anyone leaving early, the team will ask them why and, if we think that’s suspicious, we will do a pat down,” Mr McInulty said. “Even on the normal egress, we will carry those checks out.”
It has proved a successful measure in the past, leading them to catch thieves out and be able to return stolen items to the rightful owners.
As well as looking out for anything that might be amiss, the security team works with other arena colleagues to make sure nobody is behaving in a way that might spoil an eagerly-anticipated event for others.
It is not uncommon for one or two people to get carried away with pre-show drinks, especially on a Saturday night.
Mr McInulty said: “One of the things we do is we’re very keen to stop that sort of behaviour entering the venue. If we think they might upset customers around them then we can’t let them in.”
The most visible security measure, of course, remains the checks carried out on everyone entering the arena.
Sniffer dogs are also used ahead of some events to detect drugs or explosives, including the flares that some people try to bring into gigs.
A random sample of audience members were always subject to these kinds of checks but in the wake of the Manchester Arena bombing, it became standard to check every custom andcheck their bag.
Mr McInulty took up his post at the First Direct Arena shortly before the attack in May 2017.
“I think the security was already the best at any venue I’ve worked at,” he said. “They were already taking it very seriously. It’s lots of things customers probably don’t see but they will all walk through metal detectors to show that we’re taking their safety seriously.”
As visible security measures were stepped up in the days and weeks following the Manchester bombing, the feedback from customers was largely positive.
Mr McInulty said: “The comment I heard most often then tended to be, ‘I know this is going to take a bit more time, but I’m happy to queue if we know we’re going to be safe’. The feedback certainly at that time was really positive.”
Arena owners SMG Group have since invested a six-figure sum on new metal detectors to speed up the process of checking the thousands of visitors and keep those queues to a minimum. Customers can play their part too by turning up in good time, avoiding carrying large bags and taking note of the prohibited items such as golf umbrellas and selfie sticks that can be a trip hazard when left in the aisles.
“I think generally it’s about educating audiences,” Mr McInulty said. “I think what we’ve seen is a more security conscious society, though. I think people have an expectation that if they go to crowded places, it may take a little more time for security screening.
“We know the process takes a lot longer, but we only have a finite time to screen people – about 90 minutes. We’re doing our best to invest in the security and we ask that customers get here early and travel as light as possible.”
Ms Mitchell added: “The key message for us is we want people to come here and enjoy themselves and feel safe doing so. The biggest request for our customers is to work with us on it.”