By Gil Fried, University of West Florida
Semper Vigilans is the motto of the Civil Air Patrol, of which I was a Lieutenant several years ago. It means “always vigilant.” The motto was to enforce the concept that we should always be vigilant to respond to possible threat and concerns.
Several years ago, my oldest daughter came home for Thanksgiving. During a nice meal, she chimed in “Dad you ruined concerts for me.” I was a bit taken aback. Yes, I was a strict dad, but I asked how I had ruined concerts for her. She responded, “Well, you used to always talk about all the cases you handled involving injuries that happened at so many sport and concert events that when I go anywhere, I constantly think about all that can wrong and how crazy all the case you have handled have been. I always look for exits. I look for unusual crowd behavior. I stay away from the barricades … I am always nervous.” I lifted a finger into the air and gave myself an imaginary point. Score one for dad! I turned my daughter into a situationally aware person who could grasp hazards and concerns in numerous public crowd situations. Situational awareness was drilled into my head through all my training in Israel. No unattended bag goes unnoticed and there are safety clues all around us- if we look.
This training and mindset came into play recently with the tragic deaths at the Astroworld concerts in Houston where ten concert goers unfortunately passed away. It is too early to examine the facts associated with the case and the facts will eventually come out. There are investigation and reviews going on at the state level, county level, and eventually in the courts. I do not want to focus on the facts, the false news stories, or the conspiracy theories for now. The key is for us as an industry to examine ourselves and prepare for future events.
The need for better communication could be seen in a recent television interview with a self-proclaimed industry expert who gave three tips for fans caught in a crowd surge. He suggested not yelling, not fighting the crowds, and praying. Frankly, I found that appalling. Here is an opportunity to help educate many people, and a somewhat flippant answer is to pray. A better response could include: don’t position yourself right in front of the stage at a GA event, don’t try to be the first one to a stage/barricade, try to go to the sides, if you fall- crawl to the sides, have a buddy system, keep a water bottle with you in case you cannot leave and start getting dehydrated, and simialr valuable tips for those navigating the crowd.
I also started thinking about our society and whether social media is having a negative impact on how crowds (and the public at large) behave, especially in the post-COVID environment. The availability of smartphones is great for documenting what might have happened, but as seen in the horrific Philadelphia train rape case earlier this year- many people who in the past might have tried to help- are now too busy filming rather than helping. Second, when I was growing up there were no fan codes of conduct. People acted with civility. The uptick in road rage, confrontations on airplanes, and even shooting at high school football games, as well as all sort of milder unruly behavior might, unfortunately, indicate a more violent or aggressive society with less regard for others and their safety. Even if we as an industry implements numerous safety strategies, all it takes are several idiots acting in an inappropriate manner to cause chaos and possible loss of lives
With all these concerns as part of our reality, what can, and should we do as an industry?
1) We must be transparent. We have to share with the public some of the strategies we undertake to make sure the public is safe, even if in the past those crowd strategies were covert or not disclosed for legitimate security reasons. Clearly, we do not need to cover safety strategies to reduce the threat of terrorist acts, but we should be candid with our patrons about the types of strategies utilized such as coordinated efforts with various law enforcement agencies, presence of medical personnel, management receptiveness’ to hear from and actively listen to various stakeholders, and similar concerns. Stakeholders might think we, as an industry, have an agenda to generate revenue at any cost. We must dispel this vicious industry smear, with showing how we take so many steps to produce safe events. A safe event is always the top (and some may even say only) priority.
2) We must communicate more effectively. Whatever elements contributed to the Astroworld tragedy, the perception among many is a lack of communication. Mixed messages came from various sources. What did the artist know/do? What did the incident command center know, and when? What did security/law enforcement know, and when? So many of these questions will focus on the communication chain and its apparent breakdown. It is easy to say lets document everything, and our incident command systems help us tremendously in this regard. However, were all these voices listened to at Astroworld? Were past incidents analyzed and communicated with all relevant parties? I share with attorneys in crowd management cases a list of hundreds of questions they should ask in a deposition for a crowd management case- many questions revolve around the need for communication. The best policies and procedures have little value if there are communication lapses.
3) We must understand fans and their motivations. People’s behaviors in sport and entertainment settings are changing –quite drastically, and we have to understand them and what motivates them. We might need more experts in fan behavior who can help us understand what messages resonate with people. We might have had specific industry best practices that we relied upon in the past, but those might fly out the window if they have not been modified over the years to go along with how people have changed and how they act, especially now given social distancing and crowd capacity considerations. Simialr to how the medical field is not static, the venue management industry is not static, and we must stay one step ahead of our customers. This is the key to hosting a safe event.
4) We must speak with a unified voice. Major events are often used as a tool to divide and attack an industry. After we hopefully surmount the COVID crises, we do not need another high-profile event such as Astroworld provides to attack our industry. That is why we need to go on the offensive and tell our story. We need to explain to everyone that the number one rule for facility managers is, was, and always should be the safety of everyone in our buildings. There will be calls for government oversight and new regulations. Such is the nature of the knee-jerk reaction after crowd tragedies. There will inevitably be finger pointing and the eventual blame game, with both lawyers and crowd managers included in this ongoing debate. However, if we as an industry speak with one voice and accentuate all the good we do (and have done recently) (e.g. using stadiums as mass vaccination clinics, etc.), and diligently work to address any shortcomings, we can respond in a positive and healthy manner that benefits all venue management stakeholders. We are fortunate enough to work in a great industry. Every industry goes through certain hardships. The test of our character is how we respond to these challenges. Semper Vigilans!