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 velvet rope

However, Fried doesn't advocate force or the threat of force as the main tool for maintaining order. He says many facilities are trying to be smarter instead of stronger.

For example, he notes that many public facilities are hiring matrons instead of muscleman. The theory is that belligerent people may respect an older looking woman when they might actually be encouraged to get into a physical confrontation with a muscle-bound security guard.

"It's a technique that's been used in England for about five years and is gaining popularity over here," Fried says. "No matter how drunk someone is, they tend to retain respect for someone that looks like their grandmother."

Facility managers should also put great thought into how they manage lines or the "queuing" process.

Fried recommends forming lines parallel to the walls on either side of an entrance instead of directly in front of the entrance. Many movie theaters now do this because the line arrangement limits the number of people who can enter at any one time. It also limits the crowd pressure behind the entrance point.

Major Sal Lauro of the U.S. Park Police responds to serious incidents and oversees large gatherings in places such as the National Mall and the presidential memorials. The park police watch over some of the largest gatherings in the country (although the park police no longer estimate numbers because it has led to political controversy in the past). Lauro says it is key never to allow a large crowd to gather in a place where it could generate pressure on a small group.

"For instance, we won't let a crowd of 1,000 people in front of a stage area if there is going to be 50,000 people trying to get in there," Lauro says. "Even if it means really limiting the number of people that can attend an event."

For very large events, Lauro says large, closed-circuit television monitors could help avoid people being pushed against a stage.

"Because the spectator is going to be able to see better than they are likely to see by surging forward, it tends to help avoid a crush," Lauro says.

The very big threat

A decade ago, it would have been hard to imagine that a recreation facility manager would have to prepare for a mass murder, bombing or bio-terrorism event. But many experts across the country say that's exactly what preparations should be taking place.

Wertheimer says despite the swell of alarm after Sept. 11, many large venues have already returned to a business-as-usual approach. He believes any facility manager hosting larger events should consider hiring a security consultant or contact a law-enforcement agency to review security procedures. Because his expertise is in crowd management and not counter-terrorism, Wertheimer even disqualifies himself.

"You need someone that has real experience with these types of threats," Wertheimer says. "Not me, for instance, but former FBI, CIA, Israeli security, or really good consultants or local law enforcement."

Buffalo Grove Police Corporal John Heiderscheidt has been working with the fire department, youth service agency, local park district and local schools in his Illinois community since the Columbine tragedy to develop a crisis plan in the event of an attack on a local school or park-district facility.

Heiderscheidt says the one of the biggest things the Buffalo Grove School Safety Task Force learned was that the existing emergency plans didn't match each other.

"I think this is true in a lot of places," he says. "What the police, the fire department, the schools, the park district are planning to do in an emergency are often very different from one another. That would be a serious issue in the event of a real crisis."

The corporal says park districts should feel free to contact their local law-enforcement agency to ask them to review their crisis plans.

Crisis plans often vary greatly from traditional fire drills. Perhaps one of the biggest differences is that traditional crisis planning often calls for quick evacuation of large crowds. Heiderscheidt says a crisis plan for a shooter generally calls for staff to take care of students or other young people and hide in rooms behind a locked door.

"If you pull that fire alarm, basically the offender could be outside waiting for you, and all you've done is expand the victim pool," Heiderscheidt says.