From flooding to stampedes: How to mitigate and manage risk at major events

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Written by Michael Gardiner, Special Risks Analyst, Healix

The last ten years has seen all manner of major events affected by extreme weather, terrorism, political unrest and poorly managed health and safety, leading to injury and even loss of life. From the Hamas attack at the Supernova music festival in Israel, to the heat wave-induced death of a young woman at a Taylor Swift concert in Brazil, we’re seeing that no event is exempt from danger.

Any large gathering of people is vulnerable to risk, with significant preparation and vigilance required within event management, security, and organisational teams, before, during and after an event.

Event risk management is about helping organisations proactively identify, mitigate, and respond to risks that could impact an event. There are several security and operational risks that carry outsized concerns due to their likelihood and potential impact. Major events in the past year have had to be postponed or cancelled due to the potential materialisation of risk. For example, the 2023 MTV Europe Music Awards in Paris were cancelled, with the conflict between Israel and Hamas and secondary security risks cited as a primary reason.

The key to effective event risk management is in the preparation – namely the proactive identification of risk, understanding its potential effects, and how to mitigate those risks. Event personnel should be trained on how to respond to worst-case scenarios as part of an organisation’s responsibility to protect attendees and staff and reduce financial and reputational costs. In general, these principles ensure, resiliency is improved, and decision-makers can operate with greater confidence while an event is ongoing.

Beyond general preparedness, and having personnel in place with the correct training, there are specific measures that need to be implemented to help plan for different risks – Healix can help support in the designing of mitigation measures.

Natural Disasters

Natural disasters ranging from extreme weather to earthquakes will almost certainly remain a major challenge for organisations to navigate. Climate change is exacerbating the impact of extreme weather on a global scale, and major events are not immune, with significant effects on people, equipment, and venues.

However, it can be difficult to navigate the different kinds of mitigation measures to prepare for natural disasters, due to the wide variety of possible risks. The challenges presented by wildfires, earthquakes, or heatwaves, for example, are all divergent.

A key first step is to identify and prioritise the key risks linked to the event’s location. For example, if the event is held in an active seismic zone, or where heatwaves can occur, that initial risk identification process will position event organisers in an advantageous position to prepare. From there, it’s about resourcing and positioning assets to best respond to a natural disaster event – for instance, ensuring emergency assembly locations are well communicated and emergency response methods are in place.

Contingency plans and the establishment of escalation triggers or thresholds, such as knowing at what point a postponement or a virtual environment should be considered, are also key. Waiting too long to make a call can be dangerous, such as at the planned Elton John concert in Auckland at the beginning of 2023. Due to torrential rain and flooding, the event was cancelled just minutes before the artist was due on stage – putting thousands of people who had already crowded at the stadium in unnecessary danger.

This demonstrates how communications plans (internal and external) are critical components of risk management in the event of extreme weather, so staff and attendees know how to react via clear and concise instructions, should the worst unfold.

Extremism

The Manchester Arena bombing at an Ariane Grande concert in 2017 demonstrated that extremism remains a prevalent risk at large events. Most extremist attacks in western societies are conducted by so-called ’lone actors’; radicalised individuals who plan and execute attacks with no external assistance. Organisations should work closely with the police and local authorities when holding a large event, particularly in public spaces or where large crowds are expected.

Understanding the current national terrorism threat level is also a useful threshold, as that can influence the level of required security for an event. Effective security screening and access control procedures can act as a deterrent, as well as security personnel well-trained to handle potential terrorist threats.

Protest activity

Certain events, such as AGMs, summits, or industrial action, can attract protest activity that aims to disrupt proceedings and cause reputational damage. Sometimes events can be flashpoints for clashes. The identification of potential individuals or groups that intend to protest is critical, as is an understanding of their capability to effectively disrupt an event.

If protest activity is planned, work closely with event organisers, security personnel and the authorities, with potential solutions to move them into a controlled space near the venue that will minimise disruption, or to ensure access controls are clearly stipulated (e.g. with event ID).

Ensure primary and contingency routes for attendees and staff are mapped out in advance, with backups exercised in case the main access point is blocked. The addition of monitoring services can be useful in this regard, as public sentiment, and activity in the vicinity of the event can be tracked via open sources to identify emerging threats.

Stampedes

Many major events attract hundreds, if not thousands of people. High-density events increase the risk of stampedes and crushing, especially if crowd control measures are ineffective – a stampede at a football stadium in El Salvador in May 2023 resulted in at least 12 fatalities and over 500 injuries, while another in December 2022 occurred at an Asake concert in Brixton, London, which resulted in two deaths.

Risk management is critical to prevent this event-specific risk, as without adequate infrastructure, crowd control measures, and training of security personnel, the risk of stampedes is elevated. For example, the identification of ‘chokepoints’ – areas of higher risk for congestion and crushing – are an important aspect of mitigating the stampede risk. The mass-fatality crushing in South Korea over Halloween in 2022 demonstrated that poor policing and inaction played a large part in the tragedy – ensuring there are enough well-trained personnel to deal with crowds and identifying warning signs is critical.

In conclusion

After a pandemic-enforced pause on face-to-face interaction, especially via major events, we’ll never again take their value for granted. But organisations could be out of practice when it comes to running them safely.

Thanks to bringing people together en masse, major events have always been a fertile ground for risk. But now with the rise of extreme weather events and continuing global political tension, organisations need to view major events as potential pressure cookers – even more susceptible to risk than before.

This needn’t put organisations off hosting, sponsoring, or attending events, but they cannot afford to be complacent. If they prioritise proactive planning and collaboration with all stakeholders, they’ll be able to create safe, secure, and stable environments.


Michael Gardiner is a Special Risks Analyst at Healix, a risk management company that provides security risk management, travel risk solutions, hostage negotiation, emergency assistance and medical support to organisations like EDF, Oxfam, the Elton John Aid Foundation, and more, across the globe.

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