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Pittsburgh prepares to house delegates for G-20 economic summit

| Friday, May 29, 2009

Pittsburgh will be prepared to house and protect more than 3,500 international delegates and journalists expected to attend the G-20 economic summit Downtown, tourism and public safety officials said Thursday.

Twenty heads of state, their advisers, security staff and others could need as many as 6,500 of the region's 22,000 hotel rooms during the summit Sept. 24-25 at the David L. Lawrence Convention Center, said Joe McGrath, president of VisitPittsburgh.

The G-20 summit is "the most prestigious" convention Pittsburgh has hosted but not the largest, McGrath said. The nations will stake out headquarters at hotels, likely putting distance between countries with chilly relationships, he said.

White House officials expect delegations from 25 nations to attend, said Kevin Evanto, spokesman for Allegheny County Executive Dan Onorato. The U.S. delegation will have about 250 people, the United Kingdom's delegation will have about 150 and the remaining groups each will have roughly 50, he said. About 2,000 members of the media are expected.

Securing the convention site will require careful planning and officers from many departments and federal agencies, said Craig Edwards, a retired assistant chief of city police and former security manager for U.S. Steel's Downtown headquarters.

"That's a big undertaking," said Edwards, 63, of the North Side. "You have to prepare for what may not ever happen. They'll be collecting intelligence on groups that might show up, because the G-20 summit has a tendency to draw demonstrators."

Yarone Zober, chief of staff to Mayor Luke Ravenstahl, said regional and federal security forces will team to make the summit "a first-class event, and as safe as it possibly can be." City officials declined to comment on specific security plans.

Police will establish an outer perimeter and inner perimeter, using heavy manpower, likely with dogs, horses and Jersey barriers, Edwards said, and tighten security closer to the building.

Officers will be needed to guard hotels where heads of state stay, and they'll need escorts, he said. Pittsburgh has hosted dignitaries in the past, such as Britain's Prince Charles, "but nothing on this scale," Edwards said.

The White House does not yet have estimates of the number of security personnel who will be needed, or how much of the city will have to be cordoned off to protect heads of state.

"You can't plan enough, you can't communicate enough," said Sonny Jackson, police spokesman in Denver, which hosted the Democratic National Convention in August. "You cannot measure the importance of prevention, and you need cooperation from every agency you can get it from, because you can't operate in a vacuum."

Thousands of protesters flooded London's financial district during the most recent G-20 summit April 1 and 2. Most were peaceful, but some pelted police dressed in riot gear with eggs, fruit, white flour and paint. Protesters set small fires in the streets and smashed windows in Bank of England and Royal Bank of Scotland bank branches.

Police arrested more than 120 people and detained dozens more by the end of the summit's second day, according to news reports.

By comparison, Pittsburgh police arrested or cited 83 people out of thousands of Steelers fans who celebrated the team's Feb. 1 Super Bowl victory in the streets of Oakland and South Side.

Vancouver Police Constable Lindsey Houghton said police there tried to balance people's rights to protest with the need to protect participants of the Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation forum in 1997 and the G-8 Summit in 2002.

"We knew we would intervene in protests only if it was absolutely necessary. And our planning paid off, because we didn't have any major incidents," Houghton said.

Pittsburgh International Airport can handle the glut of air traffic the summit will create, said Brad Penrod, executive director of the Allegheny County Airport Authority.

"One thing we'll be doing is talking to airports that have hosted these meetings in the past," Penrod said. "But I'm confident. We certainly can accommodate (every plane) that flies today."

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