The Problem With Festivals

Critical incidents aren’t managed by a single agency. Multiple organizations, both local and national, swoop in to do their part, and in the aftermath, they typically write reports—called After Action Reports (AARs)—summarizing what happened, the response, challenges and lessons learned. The problem is, AARs aren’t always released to the public, said Charles Jennings, a professor at John Jay, nor are they always shared among agencies. That lack of collaboration has dire consequences. With no formal, national mechanism for post-incident analysis following a critical incident, agencies run the risk of conducting incomplete research, poorly documenting emergency response services, losing the opportunity for feedback and guidance, and repeating mistakes in the future.

“You find bits of important information, but because we don’t have the support we need to develop AARs, particularly financial support, we’re stuck,” said Glenn Corbett, associate professor at John Jay and member of the the Fire Code Advisory Council for New Jersey. “Here at this conference, we descended on a scene to look at it from various perspectives, but no federal agency does this.”

This kind of collaboration, Jennings said, could boost engagement between government agencies, academia and industries, cultivate institutional memory, improve disaster responses, and create best practices for local leaders in emergency response organizations.

Festival safety is particularly challenging. There is not a single governing body that oversees festivals around the U.S., which means that safety precautions are often left to “local yokels,” as Corbett puts it. Ensuring that cities and towns have access to leading safety guidelines is difficult. And the issue rarely receives the attention it deserves. “We’re good at setting up commissions and studying security issues [in the aftermath of tragedies], like police response times and the deployment of personnel, but where is the public pressure to examine how the physical setup of an event may have been problematic for guests trying to survive and escape a venue?” Gorelick said.

Even the phrase, “festival seating,” is problematic. “I get that the name serves the interests of those who want to market an event. Who doesn’t like a festival?” Gorelick added. “But might this obscure what is in large part simply ‘free-for-all’ seating?  We owe it to future audiences to be just as exhaustive in learning how well a venue was set up to handle egress if something happens.”

Experts discussed what can be done.

“Safety Autopsies”: Gorelick urged national organizations concerned with venue safety to systematically examine the implications of festival seating—what he called a “safety autopsy.”

Collaboration: During an emergency, Corbett said, high rise elevators are usually recalled to the first floor, disabled with the doors open, until the fire department arrives with the elevator key. Yet police don’t have access, which forces them to use the stairs to do their jobs. That can be dangerous. Corbett argued that both groups of responders should have access to the same elevator controls, and must collaborate more when it comes to managing sites and protecting and evacuating people.

Windows: Add blast-resistant glazing to high rise windows. “During 9/11, at the Pentagon, the part of the building to the side of where the plane crashed had recently been retrofitted with terrorist resistant retrofitting. It helped save lives,” said Corbett.

Entrances and Exits: Add more ingress and egress points for festivals like Route 91.

Social Media: Social media has proven a valuable tool during crises, offering real-time intelligence to the world. But so far, it’s been ineffective at disseminating official information to those in need. Figuring out how to send accurate, quick, critical communications to people in a certain area—through a festival app or national emergency phone network—could help save lives.

Lack of Political Action: Mobilizing public officials to improve event safety is incredibly difficult, in part because the work is, as one expert put it, “as exciting as watching paint dry.”

“Politicians and policy-makers need to get just as hot and bothered about things like event construction codes, materials used to build temporary event venues and maximum capacity as they do about how many armed personnel are needed,” said Gorelick. “Yet when’s the last time you saw a crowd of demonstrators standing outside a city council, yelling ‘more event exits’ or ‘limit crowd capacity?’”

By Abigail Jones

© 2018