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How the city of Boston is preparing for this year's PAX East

Charlie Hall is Polygon’s tabletop editor. In 10-plus years as a journalist & photographer, he has covered simulation, strategy, and spacefaring games, as well as public policy.

With tens of thousands of fans attending the PAX East convention in less than 10 days, both the city of Boston and Penny Arcade are ramping up for one of the biggest fan conventions in the country. Last year's event saw a heightened level of security, including bag checks and bomb sniffing dogs. This year, at least one game developer has questioned the organizer's commitment to safety and security. So what measures are being taken to protect the crowds at this year's PAX?


The Boston Convention & Exhibition Center, or BCEC, has hosted the PAX East convention since 2011. Its original home, the nearby Hynes Convention Center, had to be ditched after more than 52,000 people attended the inaugural event. PAX's new home has plenty of room. With more than half a million square feet of exhibition space, the Convention Center is capable of hosting multiple massive conventions simultaneously.


Katie Hauser, director of communications for the Massachusetts Convention Center Authority, explained for Polygon how they secure the space.

"We have trained public safety officers, managers and supervisors on-site around the clock," she said. "Security is really important to us. We have 24/7 building security inside and outside. We have perimeter security, and we have security posted on each of our entrances."

"We do trainings with state and city personnel a few times a year," she said. "What we do on top of our daily security plan is that for each event we have a public safety manager work with our customers to create a specialized plan that meets their needs.

"We do that with PAX every year as well, and every year is a little bit different. They may have different things that they're nervous about, and so we work with them to make sure that we’re covered for their event. And we did that with them this year, and we’re really confident with our plan."

Hauser said that in the past those steps have included a list of persons to be denied admittance to the convention. To assist the Convention Center's public safety team, the convention center also employs a sophisticated network of surveillance cameras.

The Convention Center employs small army of public safety staff, as well as video surveillance

"We can do an occupancy count using just video surveillance," Hauser said. "So, our cameras are sophisticated enough to count how many people are in the building at one time." Beyond that, she could not comment on the system's capabilities, however Hauser said that facial recognition technology was not used inside or outside the facility. Based on Polygon's research, on-demand occupancy counts alone do imply a fairly sophisticated level of technology.

"In the meetings industry we are a leader when it comes to public safety and security," Hauser said. "I’ve actually been all over the country talking about how we secure our facilities because other meeting facilities, convention centers and hotels all look to us as a role model for how they can enhance their own security plans."

Hauser said that the Convention Center is no stranger to large events, or high-profile attendees. They've entertained presidents, heads of state and major figures in the world banking industry. She says they've worked with the FBI, the Secret Service, state police, local fire and emergency personnel. The Boston Police Department, she said, is one of their closest partners.


Boston PD

One of the Convention Center's liaisons in the Boston Police Department is lieutenant Michael McCarthy. Polygon reached him last week, on the eve of yet another massive blizzard.

"We work closely with the convention center itself," McCarthy said. "We’re aware of the types of threats that this exhibition brings to Boston. I believe it’s one of the biggest ones that the convention center puts on, population wise."

McCarthy confirmed for Polygon that members of the Boston PD would be outside the convention center, as well as inside the event itself. Their plan to secure the event has been refined over weeks, if not months, with the help of the regional intelligence fusion center.

"When something like [PAX] comes to the city we have a special events bureau that’s very involved in the planning and the staffing and the security that’s involved around the event, much like a marathon or a Super Bowl victory parade," McCarthy said. "It’s a lot of the same best practices that we use for those events that we use for events like this.

Massachusetts does allow concealed carry

"We work very closely with [the convention center] on a number of events. This one being one of the bigger ones will get attention from our special events unit, as well as the intelligence unit. They’ll do threat assessments, they’ll do staffing recommendations. We’ll do security sweeps before the event takes place. We’ll have our explosive ordinance technicians go through the building with dogs."

McCarthy said that part of the Boston Police's role is to educate convention center staff. While Massachusetts does allow properly permitted citizens to carry concealed firearms, they are not allowed inside the convention center. That means that beyond a simple bag check BCEC's staff must be trained on how to tell if someone is armed just by looking at them.

"We’ve done a lot of training with the convention staff themselves," McCarthy said, "with their security people on the characteristics of individuals that may be carrying weapons and things like that, so that they can identify and notify us. That’s something that we work very closely [on] with a lot of our commercial partners."

So what's the plan?

Neither McCarthy nor Hauser would go into specifics about the plan that will be in place for this year's PAX East. For instance, while the Convention Center has employed metal detectors in the past, Hauser was not able to confirm if they would be used this year. While McCarthy cited general security issues, Hauser specifically stated that PAX had asked her not to share information with the press.

When reached for comment, PAX's press representatives gave the following statement.

The safety of our attendees, panelists and exhibitors is the number one priority for PAX. To achieve this, the show:

  • Conducts bag searches for all people entering the building
  • Has Boston PD in addition to the in house Building Security on site during all hours of the show
  • Enforces the six rules of PAX at every event, since the very first PAX

PAX prides itself on helping tens of thousands of gamers come together to share what they love most, in a safe environment.

For the safety of our attendees, exhibitors, and panelists we cannot divulge the specifics of our security programs. That said, the well-being of everyone attending PAX always has been and always will be the highest priority for the city of Boston, the convention center, and PAX.

Exactly what new and improved measures will be taken to assure safety this year is not known. But given the visibility of public, violent threats in the gaming community right now, this year's PAX East could be one of the most carefully guarded gaming events ever. According to Hauser, the convention center and their partners at the Boston PD are well prepared.

"We had an event in September of this year called Sibos. It’s the world’s biggest banking expo and event," Hauser said. "They had such high-profile people here that we had to secure the entire building. We only had one entrance in and out. Metal detectors, Secret Service, undercover police officers — the whole nine yards. So we can do everything, depending on what the client needs from us.

"We [have those conversations] with PAX every year as well, and every year is a little bit different. They may have different things that they’re nervous about, and so we work with them to make sure that we’re covered for their event. And we did that with them this year, and we’re really confident with our plan."

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