(Trends Wide) — Paul Wertheimer has spent four decades trying to help prevent deadly human avalanches since a disaster at a The Who concert changed his life.
Eleven youths, ages 15 to 27, died in a crowd at Cincinnati’s Riverfront Coliseum in 1979.
“There were loads of shoes and clothes,” said Wertheimer, who responded to the scene as a public information official for the city. “I couldn’t shake that feeling after studying the incident and being there.”
At the time, there were no federal regulations on crowd safety.
Fast forward to 2021 – that hasn’t changed.
But the recent tragedy at Houston’s Astroworld Festival, which killed nine people between the ages of 14 and 27, has renewed questions about whether national regulations are needed and what can be done now to prevent another deadly human avalanche.
A hodgepodge of safety standards in America
There is no federal law on crowd safety. But the National Fire Protection Association’s (NFPA) Life Safety Code 101 is considered the gold standard, said Wertheimer, who founded consulting firm Crowd Management Strategies after the tragedy of The concert. Quien.
The code is revised every three years and has been adopted in more than 400 jurisdictions and agencies, from state fire offices to local governments, said engineer Tracy Vecchiarelli, NFPA’s standards leader for fire protection of buildings and life safety.
The 2021 edition has several standards for crowd safety, including:
– Have at least one crowd manager for every 250 occupants at an event.
– In venues larger than 10,000 square feet (about 1,000 square meters), the crowd density should not exceed one person per 7 square feet (approximately 0.65 square meters).
– There must be adequate access to exits. In areas without well-defined exits, exits can be distributed around the perimeter as long as they can accommodate the entire crowd.
– Life safety assessments are required for events with more than 6,000 people. Those assessments should detail safety measures in the event of medical emergencies, natural disasters, and other potential emergencies.
But not all have adopted the NFPA code. And some have adopted several, such as earlier versions or select chapters of the code.
That leaves a hodgepodge of laws and safety standards across the country.
“Of course, I would love for everyone to have the most up-to-date and latest standards adopted and enforced,” Vecchiarelli said, “because that is what will create the safest environment for everyone.”
He said anyone trying to see if the NFPA security code has been adopted in their area can check out the NFPA Code Finder.
When people are pulled ‘like corks from a wine bottle’
Festivals where fans don’t have seats and can run onto the stage is the most dangerous setup for crowds, Wertheimer said. It was used at the Astroworld Festival, where some 50,000 people had gathered.
“The danger is that it forces people to compete with each other because everyone has bought a ticket for the same price, and everyone is thinking … they have the right to that perfect spot in front of the stage,” he said.
And the dangers of a human avalanche have long been documented.
“Intense crowd pressures, exacerbated by anxiety, make breathing difficult,” wrote John Fruin, a retired research engineer, in an article titled “The Causes and Prevention of Crowd Disasters.”
“In occupations of around 7 people per square meter, the crowd becomes almost a fluid mass … People can literally be pulled out of their shoes and their clothes ripped off,” Fruin wrote in the document originally presented at 1993 and revised in 2002.
“The heat and thermal insolation of the surrounding bodies cause some to weaken and pass out. Access to those who fall is impossible. Removing those in distress can only be achieved by lifting them and passing them over the head to the outside from the crowd. “
Wertheimer said these scenes have unfolded into numerous crushes, with people “pulled out of the front of the crowd like a cork from a wine bottle.”
That doesn’t mean festival-style accommodations should be banned, Wertheimer said. He said it can be “reasonably safe” when NFPA standards are applied, especially when it comes to limiting the density of people.
“But here’s the problem,” Wertheimer said. “Reducing the density means reducing the number of people. Fewer people, fewer tickets sold.”
The importance of crowd management (not just crowd control)
Festival-like accommodation is just one factor that has contributed to the deadly human avalanches, Wertheimer said. Another is improper crowd management.
There is a big difference between crowd control, or trying to keep people in designated areas, and crowd management, which considers crowd psychology and predicts what problems may arise.
The Whoo concert tragedy in 1979 occurred on a cold December night. Fans had already waited outside for hours, eager to get inside and get the best place to stand near the stage.
So when fans outside heard the band perform a sound check, they mistakenly thought the concert had started, causing a deadly crowd to enter.
“No one contacted the fans. No one knew what was going on,” said Wertheimer, who was chief of staff for the Cincinnati Task Force on Crowd Control and Safety, which was formed after the disaster.
With proper crowd management, “the dangers of festival-style accommodation would have been greatly reduced, significantly.”
There are no national standards on event permits
Most cities or other jurisdictions require permits for events of a certain size. But the necessary security requirements are inconsistent.
“There are permitting systems, but they vary from state to state and city to city. This is part of the problem,” said Wertheimer, who also served on the Cincinnati special events committee.
Without uniform minimum standards, some jurisdictions may face a conflict of interest.
For example, local officials wanting the economic boost from a major event may be willing to approve permits without rolling back gaps in safety plans, such as plans to prevent or mitigate crowds at festival venues.
Some officials may fear missing the event in an area with a less stringent approval process, Wertheimer said. “There must be some national coherence.”
Cincinnati revamped its permit approval process after The Who concert tragedy and even banned festival accommodations. Later, the city allowed festival accommodations again after adopting NFPA safety standards, Wertheimer said.
If he were still on a permitting committee, Wertheimer said he would never support a large event that had festival accommodation if there was no clear plan to prevent or mitigate crowds.
That would be a “glaring absence,” he said.
How could deadly human avalanches be avoided?
Wider adoption of the NFPA safety code would be a great start, said Vecchiarelli, the NFPA engineer. But just because a city, county, or state doesn’t use NFPA standards doesn’t mean there aren’t any safety rules.
“I think all jurisdictions probably have some kind of code for emergencies and security events,” Vecchiarelli said. “So it’s up to those local jurisdictions to enforce those requirements.”
Some cities can learn from the tragedies of other cities. After The Who’s concert disaster, Cincinnati decided to open doors for major events at least 90 minutes before a show starts, rather than 30 minutes, to help prevent crowds, Wertheimer said.
Another way to help prevent a deadly human avalanche is to have barriers that subdivide the areas of the festival-like accommodation.
“Just like you have breakwaters in the ocean to break waves, put up one or maybe even two tiers of barricades that run parallel to the stage,” Wertheimer suggested.
Also, “promoters must be licensed, and that must include requirements to have that many hours of crowd safety training at events,” he said.
With many private employees working at events, there should be a “minimum competence requirement for crowd manager training,” with an emphasis on crowd management, not just crowd control, Wertheimer said.
Public and private emergency personnel should be able to communicate easily, he said. That could be in the form of special radio frequencies designated for the event, where private doctors, the local fire department, private security, and the local police department can quickly share important information.
He would also like states to have “an effective and comprehensive permit application review” to see if any minimum security requirements need to be strengthened.
With tighter security measures, he said, future human avalanches could be prevented.
Trends Wide’s Ray Sánchez and Sandra Gonzales contributed to this report.