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Preventing and Surviving Crowd Surges

Spectators at a football match


Making Public Events Safer 

In the previous post we talked briefly about safety at concerts and festivals and how even performers can influence the way crowds behave. Good planning is essential. To run any kind of public event in Australia usually requires permission from local authorities and lodgement of detailed plans. For an idea of what is required the NSW Government’s starter guide, developed after a death at a Big Day Out festival in 2001 is a good place to begin. 

For a more detailed overview, see also the checklists provided by the Australian Institute for Disaster Resilience for Crowded Places. It also has a comprehensive Safe and Healthy Crowds Handbook intended primarily for event managers, emergency personnel, professionals in the field and so on. This covers everything from crowds encountered  in shopping centres, stadiums, public streets and transport hubs, pubs and clubs, sporting and cultural events, political rallies, protests and religious gatherings. 


Football and Soccer Matches

Football and Soccer Matches are known to arouse passions and have been the site of several deadly crowd surges in many parts of the world.  A match in Lima in 1964 which resulted in 328 people losing their lives, remains the worst on record, but the one in Indonesia last month in which 153 people died is not far behind.

At least Indonesian authorities had the good sense to disallow spectators from the opposing team. In the UK it’s more common to have separation between fans  e.g. one side of the stadium or rows of empty seats between fans of different persuasion. Banning or limiting alcohol consumption at such events is another factor intended to keep things peaceful and orderly. Kenya has drawn up detailed plans specifically for football matches. Among its recommendations are screening fans upon entry for possession of contraband which would simultaneously eliminate potential weapons. Since this would cause delays, it suggests having several entry points, thereby  preventing crowds from building up and becoming impatient.

Staggering arrival  times is another option mentioned in the Australian Crowded Places Handbook, along with only allowing pre -booked entry, which would certainly give a better indication of numbers to expect. Another excellent point mentioned by both is having experienced crowd observers who can detect early signs of trouble and remove unruly elements. More training of security guards in crowd control is another. Having more exits would certainly have helped in the Indonesian football tragedy or the Love Parade Festival in Duisburg, Germany in 2001. 


Theatres and Nightclubs

We do learn from our mistakes. For example, after the 1903 fire in Chicago’s Iroquois Theatre which resulted in 602 deaths, there were changes to building codes and laws to ensure that there was emergency lighting in aisles and around exits 

A fire which broke out after a pyrotechnic display at the Station Night Club on Rhode Island (USA) in 2003 and contributed to the deaths of over one hundred people while trying to flee, also resulted in changes to National and International Fire Codes which meant hat all venues catering to more than 100 patrons would have to have automatic sprinkler systems and trained crowd managers.

Fireworks or similar were also responsible for the 2013 Kiss Night Club fire in Brazil which claimed the lives of 242 people and injured 500 others in the ensuing crowd crush. The high death toll was found to be due to an over -capacity crowd and a lack of signage and emergency exits. One of the consequences of the enquiry which followed was a general fire safety inspection of all clubs – 60% of which failed and much tighter  regulation. 


Better Planning but New Threats

As we can see from the above, almost every major incident has resulted in better planning,  better site design and crowd management and more legislation to keep people safe. Despite some injuries at a festival in 2017, there has been no loss of life at such events in Australia* since new guidelines were introduced in 2001. However, new threats continue to emerge – for example, there is increased emphasis now on how to prevent hostile acts such as cars being driven into crowds. Unforeseen events still happen too and mistakes are still made. An unexpected hailstorm at a football match in Nepal for example, caused a fatal crush which was made worse because exit gates were locked. 

*Before we congratulate ourselves too much, the Australian Crowded Places Handbook notes that an inspection of nightclubs in regional Australia found several of them in breach of fire regulations which included some having locked exit doors to prevent non -paying guests or those who had been evicted, from entering -a problem which they say could easily have been solved by having extra security at those doors. It also shows the importance of monitoring and enforcement.


Unplanned Events

There was no one in charge in Seoul on Halloween. People just came together spontaneously in the night club district. Although some people did ring police as things began to escalate, police did not immediately respond. In the case of the Indonesian football match, it seems that overreaction by police and their use of tear gas may have contributed to that disaster. Use of tear gas and locked gates were also implicated in the Accra Stadium Disaster in Ghana in 2001, with the loss of 124 lives. 

Even Black Friday Sales in the USA  are becoming more dangerous as they get bigger and bigger and determined bargain hunters converge on shopping centres and businesses, so what can you do, if you find yourself in a surging crowd?

Protecting yourself in a Crowd

While much responsibility for public events rests with organisers and civic authorities, individuals also need to take responsibility for their own safety. Try to avoid large crowds, especially uncontrolled ones. Go with a friend so that you can look out for each other. If you are at an organised event, listen and obey all instructions. Don’t push past barriers designed to limit overcrowding and keep people safe. Note where the exits are and immediately report any concerns to security.

At the first sign of any trouble, remove yourself quietly if possible so as not to cause alarm and then call security or police. If the crowd does start to surge, keep pace, but gradually move diagonally to the sides and if you can, pull yourself up and out of the way. Remember that more people die of suffocation than from crush injuries, so stay upright and get as high up as possible. Help others up if  they fall, especially women and children as they are more frequently among the victims.

Be aware of potential choke -points. The underpass at the Love Parade Concert and Seoul’s narrow alleyways which funnelled people down to an even narrower subway entrance are cases in point. Bridges are another. 

Fatal Bridges 

The Jamarat Bridge in Mina, Saudi Arabia which pilgrims must pass over during their obligatory pilgrimage to Mecca, has been the scene of several serious incidents. With up to 8 million people at such events, the much higher death toll is not surprising. After 363 people lost their lives there in 2006, the Kingdom doubled the size of the bridge to 8 lanes, enlisted 100,000 security guards and had 5,000 CTV cameras installed, yet the number of pilgrims also increased, resulting in a further 2400 deaths on the bridge in 2015.

The Al -Aimmah Bridge in Baghdad was also the scene of a major human crush event in 2005 which left 960 dead, after a rumour began about a suicide bomber. 

Similarly, 347 of the 4 million people attending a Water Festival In Cambodia in 2010, met their end on Phnom Penh’s Diamond Bridge, when crowds suddenly began pushing from both sides as police attempted to disperse them with water cannons. 

Avoid being trapped against hard barriers by an onrushing crowd too. If you fall, make yourself into a ball and try to protect your head with your arms. The video below has more, but be warned, it’s very graphic. Also, we no longer use the word “Stampede,” but rather crowd surge because the former implies that the victims are at fault, when such tragedies are more often the result of poorly designed venues or events beyond the control of the individual. 

See also Surviving a Moshpit  at a Concert and Surviving Black Friday Sales. Much the same applies to store openings, parades and demononstrations.

Keep Safe!

NEXT: I did finally finish that trip to the West Coast that I started last October, so hope to have cheerier content for you next time.