GAINESVILLE, Fla. — The No. 24 Florida Gators will play their first home game of the season on Saturday at 3:30 p.m. ET when they host the No. 23 Tennessee Volunteers to open SEC play.
But there’s more to hosting a football game than a 3- to 4-hour showdown on the field between two teams.
According to Florida’s University Athletic Association, an average Florida football game requires more than 3,300 working personnel spanning 17 government agencies and outside vendors.
This includes the employment of first responders from the UF Police Department, Gainesville Police Department, Alachua County Sheriff’s Office, Florida Highway Patrol and Gainesville Fire Rescue, among others.
“We’re a relatively safe community, but we’re also a caring community,” Gainesville Police Department Lt. Joe Raulerson said Friday. “We obviously want everybody who’s coming into town and the residents that live in town to be as safe as possible and really enjoy the atmosphere of the game.”
Early this week, there were doubts as to whether the game would be played in Gainesville after Hurricane Irma made its way through the state, resulting in 26 deaths in Florida and causing massive power outages, property damage and flooding.
The Gators had previously canceled their original home opener against Northern Colorado on Sept. 9 because of the impending threat of Irma to allow the first responders and other government agencies to make necessary preparations for the storm. Athletic director Scott Stricklin said after meeting with school and city officials throughout the week that it was “the wise and prudent thing to do” in order to ensure safety for all parties involved.
While the aftermath of Irma can still be felt, Gainesville and the Florida Gators are attempting to get back to a semblance of normality.
But in order for that to happen, a lot of security measures have to go on behind the scenes as close to 90,000 people prepare to pack The Swamp.
‘We want to be in the background’
The Gators will kick off at 3:30 p.m. ET Saturday in a nationally televised game, but for those law enforcement officers who will be working behind the scenes, work starts as early as 9 a.m. ET and doesn’t end until about two hours after the game ends.
Alachua County Sheriff’s Office spokesman Art Forgey said Thursday that his office normally has about 90 officers working game-day security on site and at the Alachua County Jail. Raulerson said the Gainesville Police Department has anywhere from 80 to 100 staff members on site depending on the opponent.
Saturday will be no different.
“This is the first home game,” Raulerson said. “We have dedicated members of the police department that want to step up and help security effort and make sure fans have a good, safe time.”
Gainesville Police Department, UF Police Department and Alachua County Sheriff’s Office work together to ensure the safety of all parties at the stadium before, during and after the game.
They line the perimeter inside and outside Ben Hill Griffin Stadium. They assist in traffic control in the parking lots. They respond to any unruly behavior from fans in the stands.
Farther away from the stadium, Florida Highway Patrol helps maintain the flow of traffic on the interstate approaching Gainesville.
But overall, Raulerson said, their goal is to be behind the scenes as much as possible.
“We want to be in the background so that you don’t really ever see us,” Raulerson said. “That’s our goal. We’re there, and you’ll see some of the officers on the sideline, but the goal is that you see security but you don’t see us also.”
‘It was a trying time’
As a northern, interior city on Florida’s peninsula, Gainesville was spared relative to the rest of the state. Irma made landfall in South Florida as a Category 4 storm and hit South Florida, Tampa and Jacksonville the hardest. Gainesville experienced Category 1-force winds Sunday night and Monday morning. At one point, nearly half of the city was without power.
While the city only faced minor damage, officials still prepared for the worst.
“It didn’t matter which way the storm went,” Forgey said Thursday. “We were right in the middle, so we were going to get it whichever coast it went.”
Forgey said the sheriff’s office staff worked 12-hour daily dispatches leading up to the storm and through Wednesday night. There are still some emergency teams working longer shifts because of flood concerns, Forgey said, but the office is mostly back to its normal schedule.
Raulerson said a large amount of the Gainesville Police Department staff slept in the office during the aftermath of the storm and woke up around 5 a.m. or 6 a.m. for their next shifts.
“It was just a trying time for everyone,” Forgey said.
Florida coach Jim McElwain and the rest of the University Athletic Association understand the trying times the first responders have undergone to ensure the city’s safety. The Gators will be recognizing those responders who helped the city and the state of Florida during the game on Saturday.
“There’s so many people that have worked tirelessly and continued to work,” McElwain said Monday. “We’ll wear a special piece on our helmet. We’ll do some other things through the actual game management piece with some of the evacuees and volunteers, that kind of thing to make sure they all know how much they’re in our hearts.”
Lending a hand
While Gainesville’s first responders will be at full force on Saturday for the Gators’ home football game against Tennessee, they will also be getting a little extra help.
The University of Tennessee Police Department announced Wednesday that it would be sending two dozen officers to Gainesville to assist with game-day security coverage.
“I kind of knew in my own mind that if they were planning on having the game there that they thought they could do so safely, but I also knew that because that hurricane was so wide and because they expended so many resources, I knew they would be short of their normal resources,” Troy Lane, associate vice chancellor for public safety and chief of UT police, said according to the Knoxville News-Sentinel. “We’re happy to help out where we can.”
Raulerson said the Knoxville Police Department also reached out and offered their assistance.
Forgey said the offer from the University of Tennessee Police Department was an example of the camaraderie and fellowship shared among law enforcement officers.
Both sides acknowledge there’s a football game going on, but the bigger picture still exists.
“Law enforcement is a huge family and a brotherhood,” Forgey said. “It doesn’t matter if you’re from Tennessee or you’re from Idaho. We’ll be on the same team before the game starts and after the game starts, but during the game, we’ll be rooting against each other and ribbing each other even though we’re still one family.”