Allied in Safety

Allied in Safety

The Event Safety Guide will be indispensable for entertainment venue managers and industry professionals

Steven A. Adelman

For National Fire Protection Association (NFPA) members who are immersed in safety training every day, the concept of “life safety first” is so fundamental that it hardly needs to be articulated.

Yet, despite advances in every aspect of safety technology and training, the list of catastrophes associated with live events continues to grow, from outdoor stage roof collapses to nightclub fires to crowd crush incidents. Clearly, important parts of the message are being lost between existing regulations, codes, and guidelines and the boots on the ground.

To help address that gap, a group of live-event industry professionals has formed the Event Safety Alliance (ESA), an organization designed to make it easier for their peers to work safely and create safe events. By design, the scope of events considered by ESA is broad and ranges from entertainment to athletic to civic, held in large and small venues both indoors and outdoors. ESA’s current centerpiece is its new Event Safety Guide, a work-in-progress whose 37 chapters discuss best practices in the key operational areas for live events. The Guide makes extensive use of existing resources such as NFPA 101, Life Safety Code, and NFPA 160, Use of Flame Effects Before an Audience. For ESA, the emphasis is not on exhaustively studying each issue, but rather on presenting important safety information in a form that busy event professionals are most likely to use, and that can help them plan and carry out events with a primary goal of life safety.

The Need for an Event Safety Alliance

It began with Indiana. On August 13, 2011, as the band Sugarland was about to perform at the Indiana State Fair, a severe weather system, including high winds, moved through the Indianapolis area. A powerful gust of wind toppled the temporary outdoor roof that had been erected over the Fair’s permanent main stage, with large parts of the roof and supporting structures falling onto people gathered at the front of the stage. Almost immediately, the Internet was flooded with photos and video taken by patrons watching in horror from the grandstand. Opinions of the tragedy, which left seven dead and more than 40 others hurt, ranged from an unforeseeable act of G-d to a completely avoidable consequence of human error. The fingerpointing encompassed everyone from the event’s organizers, crowd mangers, and roof technicians to safety inspectors and weather forecasters.

Although event industry professionals had been shaken by previous disasters, the Indiana event mobilized people for several reasons, starting with the sheer number of people killed and injured. It was also the third weather-related outdoor roof collapse in North America in just three weeks, preceded by events in Tulsa, Oklahoma and Ottawa, Ontario. Its causes appeared to include many aspects of event operations, from rigging and engineering to incident command structure and crowd management to communications and contracts among the parties.

As the dust settled, event industry professionals began talking to each other about why Indiana (and the tragedies that preceded it) had happened and what could have been done differently. Starting in January, 2012 at industry events Tour Link and Pollstar Live!, as well as the International Association of Venue Managers’ Academy for Venue Safety & Security and then its Severe Weather Preparedness course, a group led by Jim Digby, tour manager for the band Linkin Park, decided to take matters into its own hands by forming the Event Safety Alliance.

Alliance members began looking closely at our own industry, and we found that there was plenty of good information available to us, including the consensus codes and standards created by organizations such as NFPA. The issue as we saw it is that in a field with few barriers to entry and that is largely self-regulating, best practices were too often a mystery to the people who needed them most. In the name of putting life safety first, ESA set a goal of closing the gap between theory and practice — but that didn’t necessarily mean handing out copies of the Life Safety Code.

By our own estimation, ESA is comprised of people of action: event producers, engineers, riggers, equipment lessors, tour managers, roadies, safety specialists, and many more. A look in our collective mirror yielded ESA’s first major insight: for event industry professionals, the downside of being a doer is that we generally are not big readers. Few of our peers are likely to hunker down with a major regulation, industry code, or technical standard, most of which can be fairly characterized as challenging even for disciplined readers. A guide needed to be created for the way people in this industry were likely to use it, which is on-the-go while juggling the myriad tasks associated with preparing for a live event.

Fortunately, a version of this wheel had already been invented. In the United Kingdom, following the 1989 Hillsborough Stadium disaster — a crowd crush incident at a soccer match that left 96 dead and more than 700 others hurt — the government’s Health and Safety Executive led an effort in the early 1990s to codify safety best practices for live events. The result was HSG195, better known as the “Purple Guide.” In the U.S., we resolved to pool our collective knowledge and experience to build from the British document, which had last been updated in 1999 and was written primarily event operations personnel staffing events in the U.K. We divided into working groups by areas of expertise and began writing (see “Crowd Sourcing for Crowd Safety” below).

While this drafting work was beginning behind the scenes, ESA made its formal debut, fittingly, in Indiana. In April, 2012, then-Governor Mitch Daniels hosted the Event Safety Alliance at the Statehouse in Indianapolis. A roomful of state legislators, public safety officials, and industry allies responded enthusiastically to the organization and its mission, and to our plans to create an updated American version of the U.K.’s Purple Guide. The gathering came shortly after the release of the Thornton Tomasetti engineering report and Witt Associates’ event management report on the Indiana State Fair incident, which found deficiencies in the roof system assembly as well as in the State Fair’s emergency planning and communications procedures.

The Event Safety Guide: Teaching Professionals to Fish for Themselves

The underlying goal of ESA’s best practices guide was to help industry professionals ask the right questions, which would then help them figure out the right answers for their particular event. Throughout the Event Safety Guide, we tried to embody the old proverb, “If you give a man a fish, you feed him for a day; if you teach a man to fish, you feed him for a lifetime.” An example:

1.2.2 The “why” part of a situation is often the key. In some matters, there is an absolute right answer, a single best and most correct way to do something. We have emphasized those few rules we consider unbreakable. In a great majority of situations, however, there is more than one safe way to do something. For those, we have tried to identify important issues for you to consider as you seek to apply a general safety standard or principle to the particular factual circumstances you actually face. In other words, we try to teach you to think about safety for yourself, not just to follow rules that may apply to you to varying degrees, or not at all.

The Guide was never intended to function as a code or standard, but rather as a discussion of best practices that relies on, and refers to, the more “formal” technical or regulatory documents. Because ESA’s own leaders learned the trade with the help of organizations that have already tackled many of these issues, the Event Safety Guide incorporates and cites numerous NFPA codes and standards, as well as regulations, standards, and other materials produced by organizations including the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA), the Federal Emergency Management Administration (FEMA), PLASA (formerly known as the Professional Lighting and Sound Association, the American National Standards Institute (ANSI), the International Code Council (ICC), the International Alliance of Theatrical Stage Employees (IATSE), and the International Association of Venue Managers (IAVM), among others. We compiled other groups’ detailed work, then distilled it into a more easily digestible form for event professionals. Along with technical requirements and summaries of the relevant regulatory provisions, the Guide also discusses the decision-making authority to delay, alter, or, in the worst-case scenario, cancel an event at the last minute or even while an event is in progress. The potentially competing interests of fans, performers, agents, organizers, and those charged with public safety can complicate discussions of the appropriate actions to take during an event, which is why deciding who has the final go/no-go call must be done in advance to avoid confusion and delays in the decision-making process.

In February 2013 we introduced the first version of the Event Safety Guide. Its 37 chapters — including “Fire Safety,” “Major Incident (Emergency) Planning,” “Communication,” and “Crowd Management” — cover perennial event safety issues as well as recent hot-button subjects such as “Weather Preparedness” and “Rigging.” Because it is designed to be a “living” document, one shaped by the people who are working live events every day, this first edition is currently in a six-month comment and review period. Through at least August, ESA’s editing team, headed by Dr. Donald Cooper — former State Fire Marshal in Ohio and chair of the Technical Search and Rescue Committee for NFPA 1670, Operations and Training for Technical Search and Rescue Incidents — will respond to comments, add new sections, and consider the impact of breaking events on existing material (see “Reasonably Foreseeable” below). Depending on the volume of comments and suggestions received, ESA anticipates finishing the second public review and comment period by the end of 2013 or early 2014, with the first complete Event Safety Guide tentatively set to be released in March, 2014. Review copies are currently available as a free download.

ESA’s Next Safety Program

The Event Safety Guide is an essential starting point for ESA’s work. While its text may be more digestible than the codes, standards, and other documents it references, we have no illusions about roadies or riggers carrying it around backstage. Our next task is to apply the Guide‘s information in a format that makes it even easier to ask the right questions.

ESA is designing safety plan software which will help event operations staff — from the promoter, venue manager, and artist representatives to the heads of security, ticketing, and even housekeeping — think more like risk managers. In response to prompts, users will input site- and event-specific information, then check various customizable boxes regarding different conditions and hazards they are reasonably likely to face. The output will be a plan for that particular event that addresses the most reasonably foreseeable safety issues and provides hyperlinks to applicable regulations, codes, and technical standards.

In an effort to increase transparency and accountability, the input and resulting plan will be automatically shared with representatives of every party in that event’s leadership, from vendors up to event managers, particularly including representatives of the Authority Having Jurisdiction—usually the local fire and building officials. We realize that even a good plan may be thwarted if certain decision-makers are unaware of it. As a further incentive for event organizers who put life safety first in this manner, the input and output will also be shared with the organizers’ insurance representatives. Leading entertainment insurers have confirmed that in this entrepreneurial and substantially unregulated industry, they would be very happy to keep a closer watch on their investments and to financially reward insureds who take the necessary steps to put on safe shows.

In addition to software development, the Event Safety Alliance has plans related to marketing and education, lobbying, and even training and consulting. We are meeting with industry leaders to develop broad support for ESA’s mission, and to solicit comments for the Event Safety Guide from the people most likely to use it.

We have tried to turn the horror of Indiana into something positive. Beyond our own professional self-interest, many of us are parents who want safe events for our children. We have created a best practices guide for the live-event world as it exists. If we appear to seek the unattainable, we do so in an effort to avoid the unimaginable.

Crowd Sourcing for Crowd Safety

The Event Safety Guide was a largely online project, created by a series of groups with attributes that mimic NFPA technical committees. First, event industry professionals with subject matter expertise volunteered to help create portions of the Guide. Then, Event Safety Alliance head Jim Digby, tour manager for the band Linkin Park, approved each task group leader and the experts comprising each group, which then set about drafting at least one chapter each. Next, task group coordinator Steve Lemon, head of the event planning and management company Steve Lemon & Associates, supervised the entire project and served as liaison to the ESA leadership team. Managing editor Dr. Donald C. Cooper, former State Fire Marshal in Ohio , addressed formatting and style, including resolving technical issues or conflicts that arose during research and writing. Once editorial review was complete, a revised draft was returned to the task group for final approval before being included in the Guide.

Because ESA places great importance on gathering broad industry support, the initial version of the Guide released in February and available at is stamped “Draft—For Review and Comment Only.” Since then, industry professionals have provided further editorial suggestions that have been integrated into the text, and ESA leaders have approached other stakeholders, such as insurers and event organizers, about adding their own input to ensure that the text reflects their interests as well.

The Guide currently includes 37 chapters available for free download, and interested parties can submit their comments and suggestions. When the review and comment period ends in August, an editorial committee will digest the additional material, determine by consensus what should be included in the next iteration, and incorporate it into an updated version to be published for a second round of public review and comment.

The Event Safety Guide was always conceived to be a “living document,” responsive to industry trends and events. The inconclusive nature of capturing a rapidly evolving industry, plus ESA’s collaborative drafting process, make the Guide a somewhat unwieldy undertaking. To borrow a line from our U.K. brethren, we feel that this is the worst way to create a best practices guide, except for all the others.

‘Reasonably Foreseeable’

The Boston Marathon bombings and the limits of safety

At first glance, the bombing of the Boston Marathon on April 15 is the sort of incident the Event Safety Alliance should be well-equipped to address. As a disruption of a live event, surely this was a scenario for which ESA’s subject matter experts could quickly create a template for other road race planners and civic leaders.

As it turns out, however, the Marathon tragedy better illustrates the limits of what event safety practices, and a best practices guide, can do.

The notion underlying “best practices” is that certain actions or occurrences are so foreseeable that a reasonably prepared industry professional must be ready to take action if any of these incidents occur. This best-practice approach provides the foundation for the ESA’s Event Safety Guide, which then describes what reasonable preparation for those various actions and occurrences might look like. But where an occurrence is not reasonably foreseeable, there cannot be a best practice for dealing with it.

Unlike severe weather, a criminal or terrorist action like the Marathon bombing is not among the types of events that industry professionals can regard as reasonably foreseeable. Although bombings in public places are not unheard of in the United States, they are mercifully uncommon, and there was no precedent for the terrorist activities near the finish line of the 2013 Boston Marathon. As a result, although ESA’s leaders discussed adding a chapter about road race safety to the Event Safety Guide, we could think of little more than removing trash barrels and mailboxes that could hide explosive devices, as is already done at races in other countries, and increasing the number of uniformed security personnel along the route, although no one ratio of security to fans fits all races.

In the end, the Event Safety Alliance opted not to state the obvious in a new chapter, but instead to share our support for the victims and their families. That seemed to us to be the best practice under the circumstances.