Helping the Disabled in an Emergency

Steven A. Adelman

When I first got involved in venue safety litigation, much of my focus was on mosh pits. One night I got a call from an older friend who had recently retired. After marveling at my stories of concert mayhem, she remarked that I was dealing with completely different issues than at the high culture events she attended. “Oh really?” I said.

My friend is a patron of classical music and modern dance. In order to be close to the action, she and her husband sit in center orchestra seats, a few rows from the stage. If she has ever been to a rock concert or a general admission event, I have not heard about it. She was blissfully unaware of concepts like occupant load, sufficiency of egress, exit lighting, and usher training. So, in the interest of enlightenment, I posed some questions.

First, I asked about the people sitting near her at a typical performance. “Older or younger?” I asked. “Older,” my friend replied. “Do any of them use canes or walkers, or just move slowly?” “Most of them,” she lamented. “And these are the people sitting on both sides of your center orchestra seats?” “Uh, yes,” my friend answered, waiting for the catch. “So in an emergency, you would have to either climb over these people or wait for them to get out of your way, right?” My friend’s response was unprintable.

Warming to my educational mission, I shifted gears. “Let’s say you got out of your row without incident — where would you go?” Rallying, my friend confidently replied, “The exit, of course.” I lured my prey with another easy question. “You know where the exits are?” “Certainly,” she replied. She and her husband are very good about checking for the nearest exit signs. “So if the way you came in was blocked, you would know another way to leave the building?” “Yes,” she said, now a bit uneasily. “Besides the main entrance, do you know where any other exits would take you?” Uh-oh, another long pause. “No.” “Do you know if you’d have to go behind the stage or down any stairs, or whether there is emergency lighting?” Again, “No.” “How would you find out?” My friend brightened another easy question. “Why, I’d follow an usher!” “Those ushers — older or younger than you?”

Suddenly my friend realized that we were talking about the same crowd situations after all, but with different audiences. Which scared the hell out of her.

There can be crowd crushes without mosh pits, people falling down without being drunk, patrons behaving irrationally in their golden years as much as in their callow youth. Despite the incredible diversity of public assembly facilities, the legal standard of care is always to do what a “reasonable person” would in the same or similar circumstances. The challenge is to decide what is reasonable at any given event.

Here are a few places to begin assessing your facility’s preparedness to handle an emergency involving people with disabilities.

Code compliance

All facilities should meet the requirements of the Americans with Disabilities Act, as well as applicable fire and building codes. These contain minimum standards for accessibility, egress, and emergency lighting, all issues of heightened importance when dealing with disabled people. At the very least, you should periodically have your facility inspected for compliance with applicable codes and regulations.

Some vulnerabilities, however, are harder to reduce than others. For example, many treasured opera houses and symphony halls are necessarily riskier facilities. High culture performance tends to attract a disproportionate number of elderly and disabled patrons, and “grandfather clauses” often exempt older buildings from current safety codes.

Likewise, hastily-erected local fairs present an astonishing array of risks even to able-bodied people. Providing adequate space for crowd movement and clear signage is a challenge at every open space venue. Add in the chaotic nature of most fairs, particularly with nighttime lighting and noise, and reasonable egress becomes a serious liability problem.

Emergency plan

Every facility should have an emergency plan that reflects the realities of the target demographic. But the fact that a plan exists is hardly the end of the legal obligation to your guests. A plan for which the staff is inadequately trained is virtually an admission that the facility has not met its own standard of care.

Training is essential, and the venue’s potential liability is the same whether the ushers are paid professionals or volunteers. In legal terms, if volunteer staff will not learn and practice your emergency plan, then the venue may not reasonably count on their help.

Know your audience

It is important to have adequate space for wheelchair patrons, but you also need people available to get them out of the building in an emergency, or to a nearby shelter in place if no safe exit is possible. Lighting of stairs and exits becomes particularly important where people tend to be visually impaired. Clear, frequent public address announcements from a person with authority are vital, particularly where members of the audience may need extra help or time deviating from their usual routine.

Test your plan

The only way to be sure you have managed these risks is to test your emergency plan, either in real time or at least with a tabletop exercise involving your key staff. The more literal-minded you get, the more you will identify gaps in either the plan itself or in your ability to implement it.

The International Association of Assembly Managers has tools to help. At IAAM’s Academy for Venue Safety & Security, we teach a risk assessment formula, R=VxTxC (Risk equals Vulnerability times Threat times Consequences). For example, consider the risk created by disabled patrons at an older opera house. The vulnerability is the audience itself, which, in its own way, may require as much attention as teenagers at a rock concert. Reasonably foreseeable threats might include medical emergencies, people needing help moving through a relatively inaccessible building, or an inability to understand announcements. The consequences, particularly to an already fragile population, can be dire.

The Vulnerability Identification Self Assessment Tool (“ViSAT”), which IAAM developed in cooperation with the U.S. Department of Homeland Security, takes the user through myriad risk scenarios to apply the R=VxTxC formula. While it is valuable for any facility to engage in this analysis, it is particularly important for venues that attract vulnerable patrons.

As a matter of law, the more foreseeable a risk, the greater the venue’s duty to prevent that risk from having disastrous consequences. The risks of hosting disabled patrons are different, if not necessarily greater, than for other audiences. Any venue that ignores these differences does so at its own risk.