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.

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.


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, 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." 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.


"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.

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.

Easy now

One of the great challenges of providing against a lethal threat at a large event is providing security that doesn't overwhelm the event. The IAAM provides security-level guidelines for venue types based on the color-coded threat level indicator of the Department of Homeland Security.

Lauro safeguards many national landmarks considered prime targets for anti-American terrorism. However, he says he can still balance security with practicality. For example, park police concentrate on preventing people from bringing inside large weapons with the capability of killing many people at a gathering.

"It's not like an airplane where you have to make sure no one gets on who has a nail clipper on them," Lauro says.

Lauro says the park police still use snow fencing as entrance barriers even though it isn't impenetrable by any means. That's because in the event of a more likely safety problem, such as a crushing situation, snow fences can be taken down easily.

Several of the experts remark that "big threat" work is largely a manner of dedication, good training and planning.

"From a litigation standpoint, if you're just going to write a plan and not really carry it out, you're almost better to not do it at all," Fried says. "Because if you do have an incident, your plan will be used to show how you didn't meet your own standards."

However, Fried says the planning needn't be overly burdensome. A good plan, he says, is made up of relatively simple things, such as providing the public announcer with a readable message he or she can calmly read in the event of a crisis.

Several experts say crisis planning should be an additional layer of protection that doesn't steal from normal event planning, such as protecting against heat exhaustion or general personal security.

"After a major event, there's sort of a pendulum swing of extremes in reactions," Poe says. "We've tried to continually encourage a moderate, reasonable level of precaution that can be consistent over a period of time."

Under Protest

One of the more delicate security problems at a public facility is the political protest. U.S. Park Police Major Sal Lauro has dealt with all manner of protests, from the one-person anti-nuclear demonstration going on in the Washington area for almost 20 years to the massive anti-International Monetary Fund demonstrations last year.

Lauro offers a few tips on how to handle demonstrations at your facilities as peacefully as possible.

  • Meet with protesters if possible and ask what their plans are and how they intend to act. Ask them to provide a sufficient number of demonstration "marshals" to keep their own members acting appropriately.
  • If a political group has protested elsewhere, ask other agencies how the protesters behaved.
  • Make sure the law-enforcement agency has enough officers to make a strong showing and have enough officers in reserve to handle contingencies.

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