On March 2, 2016

Ski industry not immune to recent societal, digital, violent threats

By Karen D. Lorentz

As if the weird El Niño weather were not enough of a challenge to operating a ski area, several thorny societal issues were discussed at the recent National Ski Areas Association (NSAA) Eastern Winter Conference and Trade Show held at Killington Resort.

Among the more serious topics were those on website accessibility under ADA regulations, the unthinkable threat of a mass shooter, and cyber security threats—all of which could affect any other business as well as ski areas.

New challenge for e-commerce under ADA: accessibility of websites

Janet Zeller, the national accessibility manager for the U.S. Forest Service and Dave Byrd, NSAA director of risk management, presented information on the latest challenge to the ski industry, one which could require expensive website fixes if a case before a Pennsylvania judge goes forward. Many areas are located on USFS land and must adhere to federal regulations.

The panel noted that just weeks ago, a Pittsburgh law firm served demand letters to six ski areas stating that their websites were alleged to be inaccessible under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), which became law in 1990 and gave civil rights protections to individuals with disabilities (www.ada.gov/ada_intro.htm). Although websites didn’t even exist then, the panel explained that compliance with the law might be mandatory since Congress wanted the ADA to keep pace with technology. ADA law specifies that places open to the public must provide equal opportunity for access by those with disabilities.

Zeller and Byrd explained that resort websites can be programmed in such a way as to enable the vision or hearing impaired who have special devices on their computers to connect with them. A visually impaired person could have access to information via the computer translating written or graphic info to audio while a hearing-impaired person would see writing for audio info.

The costs are estimated to be in the range of $10,000 to $50,000 for remediating websites to be accessible to such devices.

Byrd noted no specific plaintiffs had brought up the issue of website accessibility. Rather, the law firm of Carlson Lynch brought the case. The Pittsburgh judge set trial date for May 2, an unusually short amount of time as lawsuits go. Byrd suspects the law firm will find a disabled person to represent a claim of inaccessibility prior to the case being heard.

The law firm, which contacted the ski areas with notice of accessibility “errors” in their websites, offered to rectify their websites for a fee, Byrd said. When a ski area manager suggested defending against what seems like extortion, Zeller noted that fighting such claims could be difficult as judges give deference to the Department of Justice.

NSAA will follow the developments and keep its members up to speed on how things progress, Byrd said.

Ironically, the ski industry has long had adaptive programs that allow disabled persons to ski or snowboard, some of which began in the 1970s after wounded veterans returned from Vietnam and prior to ADA. Today a number of programs across the nation teach all ages with a variety of physical and cognitive disabilities to ski or snowboard. Vermont Adaptive is Vermont’s largest such program, and there are others as well.

Preparing for an active shooter

Gabriel Palazzi, a protective security advisor for Vermont under the U.S. Dept. of Homeland Security National Protection and Programs Division and a former senior physical security specialist under three presidents, presented the need for awareness for such an unlikely event as an active shooter targeting a ski area. The preparation of a plan to deal with one should the unthinkable happen is imperative, he said, noting the horrific consequences of Newtown and the newest terrorist threat in San Bernadino.

Watching a video that illustrated what happens and how to address such situations, attendees learned that since 2006, a shooting event with four or more deaths occurs every 2.9 months and that in recent years there have been an average of 20 mass shootings a year in America.

An “Active Shooter” is defined as an individual actively engaged in killing or attempting to kill people in a confined and populated area. Usually there is no pattern or method to their selection of victims and the situations are unpredictable. Because such situations are often over in 10 to 15 minutes—before law enforcement can arrive—“individuals must be prepared both mentally and physically to deal with an active shooter situation,” Palazzi said.

That makes awareness key and a plan of action which includes educating employees very important, Palazzi noted, stressing actions that can be taken to prevent or reduce loss of life.

Early detection and delay are one key to saving lives, he said, explaining that a person prepared to engage a person who is behaving oddly can potentially delay and keep an active shooter from getting to people until law enforcement arrives.

In that regard, Palazzi said the national “See Something, Say Something” campaign has already had results, noting that a woman recently reported a suspicious movement of a man seen from her kitchen window. Her reporting resulted in the prevention of a mass shooting at a school, he said, noting that authorities found a stash of guns which the suspect admitted were intended for his planned school shooting.

Noting he is a “resource for Vermont,” Palazzi said he is available to help with emergency plan development for groups, and he noted that the DHS website contains much valuable information.

Cyber security in the news

Cyber security is an issue that might seem as if it would always happen to someone else, but ski areas are as much at risk as larger, more visible targets and any other business, noted security expert Anne De Vries. She addressed such potential threats as the hacking into computer systems to get personal information including payment card information or placing skimmers on Point of Sale terminals. (See related story.)

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