Where's the Party?

Depending on the size and type of event, the task force should also consider requiring the event staff to use video boards, public address systems, or signage to inform the spectators of critical emergency information. (Photo by Vj453.)
Depending on the size and type of event, the task force should also consider requiring the event staff to use video boards, public address systems, or signage to inform the spectators of critical emergency information. (Photo by Vj453.)

By Brandon Siebert

Take the time to honestly ask yourself about the quality of your agency’s policies and procedures regarding special events. Do you address emergency egress and occupant loads? Do you take the forecasted weather into account? Do you treat family events the same as those serving copious amounts of alcohol? Does your agency even get involved with special events beyond staffing them with medical personnel?

As more and more fire service organizations in the country shift toward a community risk reduction philosophy, many are failing to integrate special events into their risk assessments. One major contributing factor to this epidemic is the fact that the model fire codes and fire protection trade agencies have little guidance when it comes to large outdoor assemblage events because fire codes are inherently designed for enclosed structures. Individual agencies are therefore compelled to create their own arbitrary requirements for such events.

For instance, fire apparatus access roads as defined in the model fire codes are distinctly intended as a means of approach to structures. However, fire lanes are crucial at special events so that emergency vehicles can access all areas for medical treatment and transportation. Unexpected incidents such as hazardous materials release or technical rescue must be considered as well. At a carnival in May 2016, a fire department in Connecticut successfully used an aerial ladder to rescue two children who were stranded in a malfunctioning Ferris wheel. Without adequate fire lanes, the large ladder truck may not have had enough room to set up for that rescue.

Task Force

The first key step in the fire service management of special events is to develop a task force with all applicable stakeholders in your jurisdiction. Invite officials from fire, emergency medical services, police, public works, risk management, emergency management, city hall, and so forth. Also, invite local health and liquor department staff for events that will be serving food or alcoholic beverages. The task force should then formally convene with the organizers of each special event well in advance of the proposed date. This allows the event coordinators enough time to address any concerns voiced by the task force without having to postpone the event. Representatives from each specific event such as private security, food vendors, concert technical staff, and fireworks pyrotechnicians should also attend the task force meetings to provide precise details. It is also a good idea for your jurisdiction to formally define “special events” so that promoters know whether their event needs to be brought to the task force.

The task force needs to be a dynamic and evolving process that goes beyond simply reviewing events. General discussions should take place covering emerging trends and recent events around the world. One jurisdiction’s task force recently introduced the topic of civilian-owned unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs), also known as drones, near large gatherings of people. Law enforcement officials voiced their concerns about drones being used by extremists to conduct surveillance of potential terrorism targets. Emergency medical personnel further expressed unease about the risk of aerial vehicles crashing into people gathered in a crowd. As a result, that task force created provisions that essentially banned the use of drones at special events in its area.

Established Standards

As the authority having jurisdiction, you should conduct research prior to arriving at the task force meetings. Today, all aspects at our level of government are data driven, so be prepared to reference codes, standards, and case studies to reinforce what you are asking of the event staff. It’s also a good idea to consult with officials from other agencies who have had successes and failures with similar special events.

The importance of recording all the proposed restrictions, conditions, actions, and requirements discussed at the task force level cannot be overstated. Many of the events you will come across are recurring, and it therefore makes future events much easier to manage when you have accurate and complete records. Task force members must refrain from making any unofficial verbal agreements that cannot be verified later.

Do not let outside pressure from individuals whose vested interests are beyond the safety and welfare of the community interfere with your duties. While politicians, business owners, and investors deserve to voice their opinions, they should not be allowed to coerce regulatory officials into cutting corners at special events. Resist the urge to look the other way or make an exception and put the public in jeopardy just because a person of influence has an alternate agenda.

A matrix for conducting a risk assessment of an event should be created by the task force wherein different categories are evaluated. Minimum categories should include weather, use of alcohol, total attendance, event type, and safety. A points scale can be used to assign a risk value. For example, no use of alcohol might be zero points while heavy alcohol consumption could be five points. The sum of the values in all categories would then determine the overall risk of the event. The system you ultimately choose for conducting special event risk assessments should be reevaluated at least annually to ensure reliability.

Event Requirements

The task force should be prepared to require that the event representative hire or at least consult with an experienced event planner or designer if necessary. Complex events that are projected to have thousands of attendees and numerous hazards should not be hand drawn on a piece of paper two days before the event. The use of computer-aided design drawings, satellite imagery, exact measurements (as opposed to estimates), and formalized event itineraries are valuable to all task force members and should be provided by event management. The task force may even require the event planner to provide engineering analyses for unique situations such as extraordinarily large membrane structures or stages. As an example, special events task forces across the United States have recently begun asking for flammability surveys of decorative colored powder because of a 2015 combustible dust explosion resulting in the deaths of 15 people and injuries to almost 500 others at a large outdoor special event in Taiwan. The use of colored powder at special events has risen in popularity, and it is commonly sprayed or thrown on participants. Fire departments have even asked for physical samples of the powder to prove its combustibility using controlled test burns.

Depending on the size and type of event, the task force should also consider requiring the event staff to use video boards, public address systems, or signage to inform the spectators of critical emergency information. Event attendees would benefit from knowing the locations of emergency exits, first-aid areas, and water stations prior to an incident occurring. This is similar to the preflight announcements that flight attendants make. A designated event staff member can also use a public-address system and a prewritten script to direct spectators during an emergency, just like a voice evacuation fire alarm system would.

As more and more fire service organizations in the country shift toward a community risk reduction philosophy, many are failing to integrate special events into their risk assessments. (Photo by Cristie Guevara.)

Outdoor Challenges

Your agency and task force will have to decide how you choose to calculate occupant load and required egress width for outdoor events. Once again, bear in mind that model fire codes are currently designed primarily for climate-controlled structures with fire protection features. Outdoor venues will pose unique challenges for the fire code official compared to a building. For example, fire code exit width calculations assume that swinging exit doors with panic hardware are being used in assembly occupancies whereas outdoor events often use temporary gates and fencing. The event hazard category as determined during the risk assessment can dictate the coefficients used to calculate occupant loads and egress widths.

The task force should then compile an emergency action plan (EAP) or similar document to be reviewed before, during, and after the event. The EAP will be tailored to your agency’s needs but should at a minimum include the event timeline, site map, contact information of key players, two-way radio channels, and emergency procedures (such as evacuation or inclement weather). Contingency plans for unexpected situations such as communications system failure, hospital diversion, or loss of electricity should be addressed in the EAP. The nearest open areas than can be used as landing zones for air ambulances need to be identified in the EAP as well. To ensure consistency and reduce the event planning workload, the task force should create specific EAP templates for commonly used venues in your jurisdiction. For security reasons, the EAP should be kept confidential and only distributed to vetted personnel that have a specific need for it.

Special Event Permits

Qualified individuals, preferably certified fire inspectors, should physically inspect the event during the setup phase as well as during the event itself. Delegation of the site inspection to individuals with other duties such as medical personnel or police officers is not recommended. Any last-minute changes to the event that cannot be avoided should be communicated with event command staff for distribution. The physical inspection should verify information on event plans that were previously reviewed and approved by a fire code official. Plan review and inspection of special events should be done by means of a permitting process that is required by the fire authority having jurisdiction.

The special event permitting and inspection processes are crucial, as evidenced in a 2016 incident involving a circus tent collapse in New Hampshire that resulted in the deaths of a father and his young daughter. The required permits for the tent were allegedly not obtained and therefore no inspection was done. The Occupational Safety and Health Administration later issued the event operator 14 serious citations after its post-incident investigation. Among the citations were notes that incorrect and damaged tent stakes were improperly used and that severe weather forecasts were ignored. The state fire marshal’s investigation also revealed reported confusion among circus workers as to how to properly alert and evacuate the crowd inside of the tent once the inclement weather began to damage the canopy.

Follow Up

An important final step for the task force is a post-event follow up and evaluation. All players involved should submit a report detailing areas for improvement and what worked well. This information should be presented to the event staff if it is a recurring event. During multiday events, a short debrief should be completed at the end of each day to address any small corrections that can be made before the following morning.

Once the task force has gone through several special events and has become comfortable and sufficient with its processes, an emergency planning exercise should be completed. A mock special event should be created and submitted to the task force through the usual means. A tabletop or functional exercise would then be completed. Participation in the exercise should be mandatory so that all the players can formally meet and gain experience working together. An emergency situation requiring the use of contingency plans in the EAP should be integrated into the exercise and worked through. Consult with the emergency management personnel in your jurisdiction and use the wealth of free information from the Federal Emergency Management Agency for assistance in conducting an emergency planning exercise. Special event emergency planning exercises should be done at least every three years.

As your jurisdiction becomes progressively more efficient with the special events process, the task force should compile informational guidelines that are made available to potential event organizers. These guidelines would accompany the permit applications so that the applicant knows what is expected before the task force is even aware of the event. It is recommended that the guidelines be broken up into individual packets or chapters based on the type of event. Examples include fireworks, tents, extensions of premise, stages, etc. Special event guidelines should be reviewed by the task force annually.

The management of special events from a community risk reduction standpoint is not a daunting endeavor once the task force and its associated processes are in place. Documentation, consistency, practicality, and communication are keys to special event success. On the flip side, complacency and an unwillingness to cooperate are toxic mindsets in dynamic special events environments. Reevaluate your policies and procedures from the ground up as well as annually, and take things one step at time.

Brandon Siebert is a full-time inspector/investigator for a career fire department in the suburbs of Phoenix, Arizona. He also volunteers at a second fire department for a total of more than six and a half years of fire service experience. Siebert has an associate’s degree in emergency response and operations and has been on staff with a private event management company for more than 13 years.

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April 2017
Volume 12, Issue 4