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


The crowd turns ugly

Press reports of the Chicago nightclub deaths in the days after the tragedy said authorities were investigating major causes of the stampede. Authorities were looking into whether the initial stampede was caused by security guards using pepper spray indiscriminately. Many of the club-goers died when they were crushed in the single available exit accessible only by a stairway.

PHOTO COURTESY OF U.S. PARK POLICE

Crowd control has been an issue as long as there have been crowds.

Gil Fried, a professor in the business school at the University of New Haven who teaches classes on crowd management, says Roman authorities in the Coliseum controlled unruly members of the crowd with lethal archery.

Sporting and recreational events have been the site of numerous fatal crowd crushes or stampedes over the last decade. Perhaps one of the most notorious sports facility tragedies was the 1993 Michigan-Wisconsin football game that injured dozens of students. Collapsing metal rails in the student section caused the students to pile on each other. Several students avoided death only because medical personnel at the scene revived them.

Fried, who served as an expert in the resulting civil cases, says the Michigan-Wisconsin football game shows the kind of terrifying force crowd crushes involve. Fried says the railings in the stands were tubular steel, but the crowd created more than 550 pounds of pressure per square inch, the amount of pressure required to overcome the railings.

The headlines have been full of other examples of concert tramplings and unruly fans at sporting events.

However, Paul Wertheimer, founder of the Chicago-based Crowd Management Services and the Web site crowdsafe.com, says social changes cannot take the responsibility for an apparent uptick in crowd safety lapses.

"I would ask the question the other way around: Is the way crowds are being managed getting worse?" Wertheimer says. "In a way, yes, because you see many of the same lapses over and over again."

Crowdsafe.com maintains a detailed database of the worst rock concert incidents across the world, as well as sporting and other large crowd events. Wertheimer says he sees one or a combination of four major lapses in almost every crowd safety problem he's encountered:

  • Poor alcohol management
  • Poor management of standing room-only areas
  • Poor communications with patrons
  • Lack of emergency planning

Wertheimer includes slow or inappropriate police or security response as part of the last category. He says when police or security officers don't respond to a crowd problem quickly, it's usually because people in authority have told them not to or there wasn't enough of a security presence to allow them to respond safely.

PHOTO COURTESY OF TENNESSEE SMOKIES

"A lot of times you'll see a massive crowd problem and a very low number of arrests," Wertheimer says. "That tells me there wasn't enough resources to begin with."

He added that even relatively small rock concerts, such as a yearly town festival or university "spring fling" could be the site of dangerously unruly crowds. Wertheimer says facility managers should treat yearly events as new events each year, or risk unforeseen problems. He urges managers to call the previous venues of traveling acts before they arrive at upcoming events to check for troubling behavior patterns.

Some media reports have suggested the rock band at the center of the recent Rhode Island tragedy used pyrotechnics without permission at previous venues.

Fried adds that security vigilance and responsiveness can be greatly increased by providing the appropriate equipment, such as communications among security officers and between security members and the crowd. Fried says some violence has occurred during sporting events with poor weather, where security personnel have gone inside for shelter, leaving thousands of patrons unsupervised.