Collaboration is Key for Large Event Safety
COVID-19 and multiple crowd incidents over the past few years have prompted a reflection on general safety and options for improvement.
By Grace Schneider, NYSAC Intern
Large-scale entertainment events come in many shapes and sizes. Events can differ by venue capacity, structure, and outdoor exposure as well as the type of events hosted including concerts and theater performances. Not only are venues across the state returning with new responses to COVID-19, but multiple crowd incidents over the past few years have also prompted a reflection on general safety and options for improvement.
On November 5th, 2021 in Houston, TX, 10 people died and hundreds were injured in a stampede a the Astroworld music festival. On May 29th, 2022 in Brooklyn, NY crowd panic in response to false reports of a shooting led to the injury of at least a dozen individuals. These incidents include many differences, but both provide foundational considerations and questions which may lead to ideas and solutions for preventing similar tragedies
Specifically, as a result of the Astroworld event, the Texas Task Force on Concert Safety produced a report with findings and suggestions gathered from revisiting the occurrence. The report established five key focus areas and recommendations for improving crowd safety: Unified Command and Control (UCC), Permitting, Training, Planning with Risk Assessment, and Centralized Resources.
I: Unified Command and Control (UCC)
Key Finding: Establish a “centralized on-site command and control group” to establish authority and communication across all involved parties.
Safely executing a large-scale event with high attendance requires collaboration between many entities. Municipalities must approve event permits, first responders may need to assist, and event staff fill roles across the venue from security to concessions. The Astroworld incident demonstrated that lack of quick, face to face communication when formulating a response to a growing threat delayed necessary help and risk mitigation. This led to the recommendation to create a physical location on site where representatives from all stakeholders should remain for the duration of the event. Creating this center not only ensures coordination beforehand in planning and briefings, but also identifies individuals with necessary authorities in different situations. Notes from the Event Production Guide, described in Action Item 5, provide specific recommendations for specific individuals and situations.
Key Finding: Understand and standardize the event permitting process to avoid loopholes or gaps.
The permitting circumstances surrounding Astroworld were particularly unique as the event occurred in an unincorporated area of Texas and the “venue” was a temporary structure, yet many recommendations apply to state and local governments. The overarching recommendation is to unify mass gathering and concert permits across the state at a baseline and allow municipalities to build upon them as they view necessary. A unified permitting process would be accompanied by a permit template and checklist for the applicant and issuer respectively. Ensuring baseline requirements are the same across the board prevents bad actors from “venue shopping”, hosting events in the least strict, least regulated areas, and informs those event planners who may have less familiarity with permitting processes. Each state, municipality, and venue owner may have unique considerations in the event permitting process but establishing a set of minimum expectations and requirements unifies and assists the process.
Key Finding: The event team (manager, security, first responders) should be specifically and intentionally trained beforehand. Preexisting certification alone is insufficient.
An important insight from the report was that annual or initial training may not always ensure employees are prepared for emergency situations. For this reason, the recommendation to meet with all event staff, crowd controllers, security, EMS, ect. prior to an event for specific training cannot be understated. Not only will medical needs vary by event, but knowledge of the venue's physical layout and potential hazards could also make the difference between a mishap and an emergency.
IV: Planning with Risk Assessment
Key Finding: As events vary in venue-type and scale, all stakeholders should be in communication well in advance to understand specific safety plans, concerns, and responses.
While a unified permitting process allows for abstract considerations of risk, intentional planning with Risk Assessment directly impacts all aspects of an event. For example, event venues can be structured, like the Barclays center, or manufactured, like the Astroworld setup, and both pose unique crowd control risks. Physical considerations, like barricade structuring, and more general assessments, like crowd demographics, can provide an opportunity to solve problems before they arise in real-time at an event.
V: Centralized Resources
The five findings provided in the TFCS report were informed by an examination of the Astroworld tragedy and information provided by various experts in the field of event safety. To ensure access to these resources and create a central information hub for event planners and other stakeholders, the Event Planning Guide (EPG) was created. The EPG can be found at Event Production Guide | Texas Music Office | Office of the Texas Governor | Greg Abbott.
Operating an event of any scale requires the participation of many groups, on many levels. LiveNation and venue staff coordinate with municipalities, sheriffs' offices, hospitals, and more to ensure everyone is on the same page and prepared prior to an event. Engagement occurs at walkthroughs such as tabletop or full functional exercises, during steps of the permitting process, and during the event itself. Each event will require different levels of interaction and communication, but the most important thing is maintaining relationships throughout the year, and sharing any changing policies, procedures, or expectations as they occur.
When coordinating medical services, venues should consider their size, location, and expected number of attendees in the planning process. Smaller venues with nearby hospitals may be better served by transporting injured audience members via 911 while larger venues and events require onsite medical staff, sourced from the local area, for routine issues as well as potential large-scale needs.
Another key function to be considered during the event planning process is communication with attendees. Methods currently in use to communicate with crowds before, during, and after an event, as well as in the case of an emergency, include displaying safety videos and facility maps on screen before a performance, signs identifying exits and shelter-in-place locations, lights and lasers to direct to specific exits when others may be rendered unavailable, and announcement systems, deemed ‘Voice of God' systems, which enable any radio, anywhere to broadcast throughout the venue when necessary. Prewritten scripts and slides addressing different emergency situations can be particularly valuable in preventing staff from freezing up during stressful and chaotic situations.
Local Government Perspective
Local governments can play a key role in promoting large event safety by working in close collaboration with event hosts. Specific recommendations for local government partners included a best practice review process, close collaboration between event hosts and government public safety services, and continuing efforts to address new threats.
For a venue to gain or improve confidence, efficiency, and safety, a general three-step process is recommended. First, all aspects of event operations, before, during, and after, should be reviewed to ensure well-established policies and procedures exist for them. This should happen item by item ranging from traffic and parking operations to bag checks at the entrances. When all policies and procedures have been confirmed and collected, and venues and stakeholders have identified strengths, weaknesses, and available resources, a collective plan of execution for all aspects should be established. Linking these aspects creates a well-rounded operation plan. Finally, all those plans on paper or in binders should be executed in training. It is recommended to train to the lowest common denominator for almost all safety procedures including “stop-the-bleed” training, CPR, AED usage, and also more general practices like working various security checkpoints or monitoring different parts of a venue. This recommendation is intentionally broad to assist all types of venues and events, but if followed with diligence should reveal new opportunities and ways of viewing long standing practices.
Along with internal operation reviews, a major way local government can contribute to event safety is through providing encouraging partnerships via law enforcement, fire departments, and EMS. Engagement with these entities before an event allows the venue to better coordinate emergency responses and best understand all the available resources. During an event, the presence of these groups not only eases the minds of attendees, but aids in multiple processes such as traffic control before and after an event, and security assistance at the entrance of venues. Evolving technology also presents an opportunity to enhance these partnerships through Situational Awareness Mapping tools. Funding from municipalities and cooperation from law enforcement could provide venues an opportunity to engage with software that synthesizes a host of information from venue personnel, social media, and body cameras to provide users with a live, real-time picture during emergencies.
Finally, two growing threats were flagged as areas for increased training and cooperation between those in the entertainment industry and their local government counterparts. Along with tabletop exercises and annual walkthroughs, it has been highly encouraged to schedule and operate active shooter training for law enforcement, security employees, crowd controllers, and others. The other area where coordination with local government was encouraged is hostile vehicle deterrence. Recommended from observing trends internationally, local governments can aid in the preparation process by overseeing and funding mechanisms to separate guests and vehicles at a venue. These can come in the form of installed sidewalk barriers, barricades set up and taken down just for events, or any other method that reflects the best interest of the venue, the attendees, and the entity supplying protection.
As instances of large gatherings continue to revert back to pre-pandemic levels and new threats and learning experiences arrive, event safety is more dynamic than ever. While Task Force findings and expert insight provide important insights, municipalities are encouraged to work directly with their venues and stakeholders to adapt effectively and specifically, ensuring stronger relationships and improved events for all.