Feature Article - April 2003
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The Crowd Turns Beautiful

From crime and crushings to big threats and personal safety, a look at some of the best techniques for managing large daily crowds as well as mass-spectator events

By Mitch Martin


Crowds are often referred to in the third person in ways that suggest they have a collective will: The crowd went wild. The crowd turned ugly. Despite collective behavior, crowds are made up of individuals. And it's the duty of recreational facility managers to safeguard every individual in their facility.

In the course of one week this February, at least 117 people died in two separate nightclub disasters that served as tragic reminders about the importance of basic crowd safety.

Many of the 21 people who died at a Chicago nightclub Feb. 17 died from suffocation after being caught in an overcrowded staircase. A few days later, as many as 96 people died in a fire at a West Warwick, R.I., nightclub after a band's pyrotechnic display raged out of control.

The recent tragedies add extra concerns to almost incomprehensible new dangers facing large crowds. The Sept. 11 terrorist attacks that left more than 2,500 dead—and subsequent bio-terrorist incidents—created a security threat to all public buildings that is difficult to comprehend. The Columbine shooting of Littleton, Colo., high school students and staff by two classmates in 1999 that left 13 dead is a prominent example of several school shootings.

The combination of international terror, youthful mass murderers and crowd crushes is a threat that is dizzying to comprehend. The mixture of a very high threat level and relatively low probability makes it difficult to plan appropriate security at public events within the context of everyday staff training and budgetary constraints.

However, crowd and security experts say a moderate yet diligent level of preparedness can greatly increase the safety of crowds as well as everyday visitors and staff at a recreational facility.

These challenges come as patrons are demanding better quality at gatherings, particularly when venues charge increasingly higher admission prices.

"As ticket prices get higher, people expect to be wowed at an event," says Frank Poe, chair of the International Association of Assembly Manager's Safety & Security Task Force. "They want an ease of getting into a facility, but they also expect not to have to deal with antisocial behavior or worry about their basic safety and security."

11 Tips for Good Crowd Management
  • Ensure security and staff can communicate effectively with the crowd.
  • Make sure there are adequate exits at the event, and no exits are blocked.
  • Create a crisis and disaster plan.
  • Discuss your crisis and disaster plan with local law enforcement.
  • Practice your crisis and disaster plan.
  • Design an event layout so there is no place where larger groups of people would push smaller groups against a hard surface.
  • Spend the money for an adequate security presence.
  • Make sure your security members have the training to intervene appropriately a problem situation and feel they have your permission to do so.
  • Find out about entertainment acts before they come to your facility by talking to facility managers who have already hosted the act.
  • Even if you've held an event for several years, treat the event like it's the first time when reviewing your crowd management practices.
  • Never gamble with an overcrowded facility.