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Leaders Conduct Risk Assessments: Security and Safety at Festivals and Outdoor Events

Ten attendees were left dead and many more injured after a crowd surge incident at the November 2021 Astroworld Festival in Houston, Texas. More than 50,000 people attended the sold-out outdoor festival, and a crush toward the stage when the event’s headliner Travis Scott began his set caused panic and injuries.

The events surrounding the tragic festival remind us of the dangers associated with live outdoor events and the necessity for a thoughtful risk assessment approach to security and safety at such events.

Security program development is a process that should always begin with a threat, vulnerability, and risk assessment (TVRA). Festival and outdoor event safety plans are driven by a myriad of possible events, including natural disasters, crowd surges, fire/life safety events, or criminal/terrorist attacks. These types of events require a comprehensive, holistic, and layered approach to security and safety that includes the inclusion of internal and external stakeholders. A good TVRA will:

  1. Provide venue owners and operators with the ability to identify reasonable and proportional threats and hazards and the overall risk to the property, people, and staff.
  2. Prioritize the threats/hazards to support the level of risk mitigation required at the venue to buy down risk before the event takes place.
  3. Allow for internal and external staff to organize, train, and rehearse prior to executing to gain familiarity with each other and develop standard operating procedures (SOPs) for routine and emergency situations.
  4. Determine if existing control measures are adequate for the upcoming event. If areas are identified as inadequate, recommendations for improvement are an outcome of the process.
  5. Give the venue owner or operator the ability to assess the negative impact on an event if any of the scenarios materialize.

In addition to the TVRA and in a parallel effort, a review of the current crisis response plans and SOPs must take place. This step is normally conducted during pre-assessment document review to help shape the efforts of the on-site work and determine the appropriate stakeholder involvement.

As with any major event, there is a multitude of references and resources that support the assessment process. The experience of the assessor combined with the professionally developed source material will provide the necessary guidance and information to support owners and venue operators as they prepare for the event.

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ASIS International collaborates with the U.S. Department of Homeland Security (DHS) to publish several key references that focus on risk assessment standards and mitigating the risk of potential terrorist attacks. These are foundational tools, and they support more detailed and directed security and safety approaches like The Event Safety Guide, Special Events Contingency Planning (FEMA), Protective Measures Guide for U.S. Outdoor Venues Industry (DHS), Intercollegiate Athletics Safety and Security Best Practices Guide (NCS4), Planning and Managing Security for Major Special Events (DOJ), NFPA 101 Life Safety Code, and individual U.S. states’ mass gathering guides.

Most recently, Texas conducted a statewide professional task force focused specifically on the Astroworld festival. The Texas Task Force (TTF) on Concert Safety was established to better prepare for festivals and outdoor events through a collective effort by music, event, security, and safety professional input. Results of the TTF are pending, but they will become another resource for owners and operators to leverage as they prepare to host the public into their venues. All these references and resources recommend that owners and operators of venues hosting outdoor public events conduct a TVRA as the first step and then work to customize the overall security plan based on the type of event and the venue. The bottom line: TVRAs are critical to a secure and safe event.

In the end, security and safety professionals need to be thoughtful in the development of the security program.

  1. Consider all references and resources prior to conducting the TVRA. Make these references a component of policy and procedure.
  2. Incorporate best practice guides and recent studies into procedure development and inculcate into planning, training, rehearsing, and exercising with internal and external stakeholders. Do not wait until the day of the event to meet your contracted security, support staff, and external team.
  3. Consider adding, if one is not already part of the staff, a certified crowd manager trained by the International Association of Fire Chiefs (IAFC).
  4. Learn about the latest in crowd management strategies as part of the concert, festival, and outdoor event planning process.
  5. Develop a local best practice guide customized for your specific venue in parallel with crisis response, emergency operations, and SOPs.
  6. Leverage technology—specifically drone technology—to monitor and observe crowd behavior in real-time. This technology will allow the venue staff to predict crowd surges and dangerous movements, allowing time and space for decisions to be made.
  7. Institute a primary, alternate, contingency, and emergency (PACE) communications plan that is tested through a tabletop exercise.
  8. Start with an overall document review and a tabletop exercise that includes all key stakeholders. A good starting point for determining who should participate includes the venue crisis response team, executive leadership, contract security and safety staff, the IT director, human resources, law enforcement, emergency medical services, and fire safety. In some instances, a hazardous material team may be included.

Lastly, as we move further away from the initial rush of the COVID-19 pandemic, it’s important to review our overall security program development and execution. Society is quickly moving back to large-scale public events that require a detailed level of effort that includes planning, training, rehearsing, exercising, and executing festivals, concerts, and outdoor events.

The Astroworld crowd surge was tragic, and we should do everything we can to prevent it from happening again. Let’s keep the conversation going. Start with a TVRA and build your event success around the process.

Bill Edwards, CPP, PCI, PSP, CPD, CIMP, is the president of Calibre Engineering and a retired U.S. Army Colonel with more than 34 years of experience as a security, safety, and intelligence professional.