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Dense Crowds - Keep Safe

Most of us go to events without thinking much about safety issues - expecting event organisers to take care of everything for us, however, we may also need to be a little more aware and take some responsibility for our own safety too.

When you go to a one of the hundreds of festivals, concerts and outdoor events now on offer you get transported to a whole new world, where farmland and greenfield sites have been transformed into large towns or even small cities - attracting a dense population to match. As with any small town or city with that amount of people in residence there will inevitably be incidents, accidents, illness and injuries. That's just a fact of everyday life, nothing is guaranteed and nothing can be 100% safe, indeed, even if it were possible and you really wanted to make everything totally safe you'd really just succeed in ruining the whole festival vibe and atmosphere, making events so sanitised they just wouldn't be worth going to.  As  we already live in a nanny state with freedoms being eroded so quickly and so casually do we really want our festivals turning into some sort of version of High School Musical? We think not..

But big crowds can present a few challenges which suggests that there are just a few issues to be aware of when you're out and about in a  huge crowd. We think that some of these issues are worth giving a little thought to so we can make sure that once we're at the event all our efforts are focused on having a great time.  - do you know what to do to keep yourself as aware and as safe as you can be in a massive crowd?

Most of us go to events without thinking much about safety issues expecting event organisers to take care of everything for us, and on the whole they do a pretty good job, however, whilst they may have all manner of policies and procedures in place, follow existing guidelines and have emergency plans in place if anything should go wrong, it's a good idea for us, as members of the crowd, to be a little bit more aware of the major issues so that if it ever came to it we'd find it a bit easier to take some responsibility for our own safety and perhaps even those around us.

The outdoor summer concert and festival typically takes place on 'green field' sites - basically a great big field; there are significant difficulties in managing crowds safely in this type of environment given the nature of open spaces - the unpredictability of external factors and differing crowd dynamics. For professionals It would be a great step forward if crowd safety management was recognised as a social science, managing huge crowds is quite a skill and many of the people who work in this area would welcome recognised qualifications and more opportunities for research. The role of those managing the crowd is often confused with the role of the Health and Safety Officer, those roles are quite different,  crowd management is a highly complex area that deserves a specific section all to itself.

Those involved with organising, licensing and promoting any event rely heavily in what has become known in the industry as the 'Purple Guide' - the Event Safety Guide was first First published as the Guide to health, safety and welfare at pop concerts and similar events in 1993 as a direct response to the deaths of two young men at the Donington festival in 1988   (see Mick Upton's paper - Incident at Donington Monsters of Rock 1988)

This 'purple guide' - is very much the industry standard and was an appropriate and necessary response to the Donington incident, it is currently being re-written as today's modern festival/concert /event environment is a very different animal from what was around in 1993. We have on line copy of this guide that can be found here if you are interested in the rules and regulations surrounding event planning. The guide has made a significant impact on the industry and it's use has enabled event organisers to attain a really high standard for UK events and festivals.

The big events that are put on each year can sometimes feel very overcrowded and that can be challenging as obviously where there are very big crowds, no matter how many safety checks are in place, there can be some hidden dangers. When we're all out having a good time it's very easy to be lulled into a false sense of security, and if drink and or drugs are added we can sometimes be quite oblivious to the obvious. It's very similar to the way in which we let our guard down when we go on holiday and forget about all the usual common sense practices we unconsciously employ for the rest of the time.

We think that if people can be just a little aware of where some of the hazards and hot spots might be for the most part you can avoid getting into difficulty so - here are just a few tips which we hope may help ensure that you keep yourself as safe as possible when you're at a big festival or event and in a big, heaving crowd:

  1. Arrive at the venue in plenty of time to familiarise yourself with the site setup and layout -check it out to see where the exits are, also check where the welfare services and medical services are located - is there an information area? Is there a security office? where would you go if you needed help?
  2. Once you're in the venue check out where the emergency exits are and as you find the place you want to be for the concert make a mental note of the nearest exit to your party, preferably look for a different exit  -  try NOT to rush for the main entry / exit because if there is a need to get out fast most people will make for the main one and the crowd there will be very intense. If you need to get out in a hurry look out for security and stewards and listen to what they are saying, they will be directing people to the nearest, safest point and if emergency procedures have had to be implemented there may be other exits in operation.
  3. Make a decision with your mates as to where you will meet up or make contact if you get separated - either inside the venue if you just lose each other or outside the venue if something happens there - that way you all know what you will do and how you will make contact.
  4. Most people want to be near the front of the stage for their favourite acts - this can be one of the most crowded areas at any event because so many people want to be there, if something goes wrong you won't have much time to think or act , you can't just rely on security to get you out - pit teams are highly skilled and well trained but they are not miracle workers and in a really dodgy situation you may only have 3 minutes to get out - so think about where you are in the crowd and if you could escape if there were problems, some people keep on pushing their way to the front even when there is no room so is it really worth it? Remember - crowd collapses can occur anywhere in the crowd but why increase your risk by forcing yourself into an already overcrowded situation? It's a bit of a 'hot spot' so be aware of those around you and help each other out, and if you are asked to move back by the band or the organisers do it - remember that they are watching and they can see things that you can't, there are times you need to do what they say quickly and without question - this would be one of them!
  5. What are the ground conditions like? Safety could be compromised with changing weather conditions, what seems okay on a fine sunny day can change rapidly and unpredictably if adverse weather conditions enter the equation. When the ground becomes sodden you might find it hard to walk and if you're on a slope it's easy to fall over - if the crowd pressure becomes intense or surges occur you can get into difficulty pretty quickly. So be aware of where you are standing and what the potential problems might be - if necessary move to a better space.
  6. Crowd surfing, stage diving and moshing - most places are trying to ban it - whatever you might think about it there is quite a high risk of injury - and an even higher risk of hurting those around you (and seriously pissing them off!) You may also get ejected from the venue as well. Be considerate to the people around you, think about where you are and how your actions might affect others. If you want to know why organisers are concerned about it check out the following information.
    Have a look at the type of injuries people are getting as a result of these activities.
  7. To avoid the crowd's inevitable rush to leave following a performance ( they call it egress in the industry and it is a 'hot spot' with some potential for accidents) consider the possibility of leaving before the end of the show - you may miss the last number but you will get out much more easily and safely. Above all try not to rush and be patient, you will get out but pushing, shoving and rushing only makes the situation more difficult and increases the possibility of accidents.

Have a look at our festival survival guide for a range of information on surviving the festival experience and making sure you have fun. Festival survival guide

So while concerts and festivals are undoubtedly great fun, inevitably where there are dense crowds there is potential for crowd safety to be compromised, some of the suggestions above may help and may also be particularly helpful if you tend to be a bit nervous in a crowd.

Some events do tend feel overcrowded and this may be because crowds do tend to congregate in certain specific areas. The capacity for any given venue is worked out on a calculation of two persons per square metre (as in the Purple Guide) - this may be a bit outdated and some experts think it fundamentally and deeply flawed because it doesn't take into account how the crowd will behave - it just assumes that everybody will stand stock still in their own allotted space however, we all know that when at an event we are not going to stand rigidly in one spot for hours on end - we will sit down (thus taking up at least twice the space we're supposedly allowed) and we will move around, a lot. Therefore, this calculation might not be the best way to work out crowd capacity in the modern concert environment - it may not take basic crowd dynamics into account and doesn't have the flexibility to take into account how the crowd will behave in different situations or what happens when there are adverse weather conditions or the fact that people will tend to congregate in certain specific areas.

But whatever we might think of it this it is the calculation that is used and you will find yourself in some densely crowded situations at these events - so we - the customer - need to be aware of potential trouble spots and adjust how we behave accordingly.

There are some complex but contradictory calculations around which the professionals have to work out how the crowd will get into and out of the venue. (They call this ingress and egress) This is important - particularly with regard to getting out of a venue as there may be occasion when emergency evacuation is necessary and this MUST be properly planned. So - what are the professionals working to when making their plans to get us in and out safely?

According to the 'Yellow Guide' ( which is and HMSO publication - 'The Guide To Fire Precautions In Existing Places of Entertainment And Like Premises') the amount of space necessary for people to pass through in single file is 525mm - it is called a unit width and is said to be capable of allowing through 40 people per minute.

The 'Green Guide' however, (which is the Guide To Safety At Sports Grounds - HMSO publication) states that the flow can be calculated at a rate of 109 persons per 2 units - so the 'Yellow Guide' says 80 per minute per two units and the 'Green Guide' claims 109 per minute per two units - that's actually a huge difference - so who is right?

When you compare like with like what it means is that the 'Yellow Guide' thinks that in the same space of time 2,000 people will be able to exit an area in the same time that the 'Green Guide' tells you 3,000 will get through. It also means that it has been calculated that people will pass through a given exit in 3 seconds - now I don't know about you but last time I was being shuffled along in a dense crowd there was absolutely no way I could have got through an exit in 3 seconds! Imagine planning for an emergency evacuation - what calculation do you use and is either right? This can't be helpful for organisers trying to plan an event.

Crowds can be unpredictable and crowd behaviour will be influenced by both internal and external factors - good, clear accessible information is essential for the effective and safe management of crowds - information needs to be both available and relevant to the crowd themselves.

Show stop procedures are essential in the event of an emergency at an event and it might be beneficial if this were to form a part of the license agreement. The person the crowd is most likely to respond to is the performer so there is an argument for making this form part of any agreement for performers, a little awareness can never be a bad thing and the more people who are aware the greater the opportunity for swift and effective action in any given circumstance.

It's very rare but deaths can and have occurred at events,  deaths that occur in very crowded situations aren't caused by being trampled on as is usually reported in the media - the deaths actually occur as a result of compressive asphyxia - that means intolerable pressure that stops you from breathing. This was first identified by John Fruin (an American expert in crowd/pedestrian movement) in the early 90's.

If you are subjected to 300lbs of pressure in a static crowd for up to 2/3 minutes your brain becomes starved of oxygen - this can cause permanent and serious disability - beyond those 3 minutes it is probable that you will die.

A crowd collapse can occur anywhere in the venue where there is a crowded mass of people, those people at the bottom of a pile of bodies are the people who will then be subjected to an intolerable pressure - it takes a lot less than you think to get into real trouble, so as always the message is to be aware of where you are, what you are doing and take care of  those around you as well.

People at the front of the barrier are at risk from crushing from the people behind them - this is termed as static loading (this means the pressure on you when you're stood still) because the people at the front will push themselves backwards in order to try and get a bit of space and air - as the people at the back press themselves forward - this causes a kind of human sandwich creating very high risk of severe injury or even death - make no mistake about it - this kind of pressure can happen at gigs.

A further high risk of crowd collapse comes from a sudden crowd surge that occurs when the band come on stage - people rush forwards en masse in order to get a better view - this inevitably increases the risk of injury not just for those at the front but also in several areas of the crowd.

There is also a greater risk and potential for crowd surges when performers decide to crowd surf or throw things into the crowd. The crowd has been hyped for hours and is therefore liable to behave in an excited and excitable manner.

The combination of big crowds and uncontrolled spaces can sometimes lead to disaster - it doesn't take very much for a minor incident to become a full blown catastrophe. The 1943 tragedy at Bethnal Green tube station began in overcrowded conditions when a woman holding a small child fell near the bottom of the first staircase. A man tripped over her, and a disastrous human domino effect began which resulted in the deaths of 173 people.

The 1989 Hillsborough tragedy wasn't the first at that particular venue; in 1981 there was a crowd surge in which 39 fans received injuries. The 1989 disaster took the lives of 95 people - 96 if you include the person who died at a later date - so badly were the victims and their families treated that there is a website dedicated to their fight for justice, one of the most horrific consequences for survivors and families in the aftermath of this disaster was the attempt to place blame for the tragedy on the fans themselves. The Hillsborough Campaign for Justice website.

If you haven't read it and are interested do have a look at the police report following the Roskilde tragedy where 11 fans died during a Pearl Jam set - Roskilde Report

Of course each tragedy that has occurred has led to improvements in crowd management and how big crowds are managed, but human nature being what it is we easily forget, and we certainly don't believe it can or will happen to us. The UK does have the best safety record around and the best people working in the field but we can all do our bit to make sure it stays that way, so the best bit of advise would be to take care when you're out and about with your party head on, take care of yourself and look out for the people around you. Don't get freaked out and just make sure you don't do anything really dumb.

As we've said before - the UK has a safety record to be proud of and overall our festivals, concerts and events are remarkably safe but we think that it never hurts to be just a bit aware of where those potential trouble spots may be.

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Crowd Safety
23rd November 2008
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Dense Crowds - Keep Safe
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