Event planning best practices

“If you fail to plan, you are planning to fail.”


We have now all seen and read about the tragic events at Travis Scott’s Astroworld concert in Houston this week. The aim of this article is not to comment, criticize or quarterback those events – yet. As we are seeing in the press, concerns, complaints and litigation are rife and the inevitable investigation will identify many lessons I suspect that we all know about and continuously plan to improve upon, but alas never do.

Many readers will no doubt have provided medical support and event standbys to every level of gathering from Friday night lights to the NFL, or the county fair to an A-list pop concert. As an EMS leader, I have presided over mass gathering support from major airshows in the U.K. (where a Harrier did indeed crash) to the UCI World Cycling Championships in the U.S., and every time, the planning, rehearsal, tabletop exercises, collaboration and communication has gone a long way to ensure the events went off without too many issues. Planning ensures when casualties do occur, and they do, to hopefully a lesser degree, then the system knows how to handle it, where to report to and where to go.

My U.K. event planning experience was always conducted under the auspices of the U.K.'s Purple Guide, a document written by the U.K. Events Industry Forum in consultation with the events industry. It aims to help those event organizers who are duty holders to manage health and safety, particularly at large-scale music and similar events. The U.K.'s Health and Safety Executive, which has wide-ranging powers of safety enforcement, was also both consulted and a major contributor to this publication. In the U.K., the maximum penalty for breach of Health and Safety Legislation is up to 2 years in prison and an unlimited fine.

The crowd watches as Travis Scott performs at Astroworld Festival at NRG park on Friday, Nov. 5, 2021 in Houston.
The crowd watches as Travis Scott performs at Astroworld Festival at NRG park on Friday, Nov. 5, 2021 in Houston. (Jamaal Ellis/Houston Chronicle via AP)

The Purple Guide lists many key elements in the preparation for and organization of a mass gathering, covering everything from electrical installation to the care of lost pets, waste management, noise levels and even control of campsites for overnight stays. The full (and free) list can be found here. Following are the elements of the Purple Guide that apply to public safety agencies.

Planning, management and risk assessments

  • Effective planning is central to putting on a safe event. Prepare an event safety plan.
  • Have appropriate management arrangements in place to ensure the health and safety of employees and others, including volunteers and the public, during all stages of the event.
  • Carry out a systematic assessment of the risks to employees, volunteers and the public. Implement risk control measures identified by the risk assessment. Put appropriate arrangements in place to monitor health and safety compliance.
  • Provide competent health and safety advice. Liaise with other interested parties, including local authorities, stadium management, arena operators, safety advisory groups and the emergency services, early in the planning process.

Venue and site design

  • Carry out a site-suitability assessment early in the planning process. In that assessment, including the nature of the event, audience numbers and the infrastructure required.
  • Design the site layout to minimize risk, for example, to segregate pedestrians and vehicles.
  • Prepare a site and area location plan, establish emergency routes, liaise with key stakeholders, such as landowners, the local authority, local emergency services, neighboring businesses and residents.

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Contingency and emergency planning

  • Have plans in place to effectively respond to disruptive influences, health and safety incidents, and emergencies that might occur at, or impact upon an event. Recognize that with all but the smallest, low risk, event organizers will need to liaise with the emergency services, and other relevant agencies, to prepare appropriate emergency plans. Ensure that robust management arrangements are in place to implement these plans.
  • Recognize that all involved with the management of events (including employees and volunteers) need to be trained in emergency procedures, be assigned to, and understand their specific roles, should an incident or emergency occur. Be aware that the initial response to an emergency may be the responsibility of the event safety management.
  • Recognize the importance of testing these plans in the most practicable way.

Medical

  • Ensure that there is an appropriate level of medical, first aid and ambulance provision at an event that will minimize the impact on local medical services.
  • Undertake a medical, ambulance and first-aid resource assessment and create a medical staffing plan before the event to ensure that staff is deployed appropriately. One method to calculate the requirement is to employ an event first aid calculator. This works with the HSE guide to determine how many medical staff are required under the HSE purple guide to have on-site at your event.
  • Medical provision should be provided for the full duration of the event, including build-up and breakdown

Communication

  • Supply employees and others who might be affected by work activities with information on the risks to their health and safety.
  • Provide staff and visitors information about what to do in an emergency.
  • Ensure proper cooperation and coordination of all those working on site. Effective communication will help achieve these goals.
  • Assess the communication requirements of all the organizations involved in the event, including handling routine health, safety and welfare information, and communicating effectively in the event of an emergency.

Fire safety

  • Fire legislation requires a risk-management process that focuses on places and buildings.
  • Carry out a fire safety risk assessment or engage the services of a competent person to do so.
  • Consult and liaise with the local fire and rescue authority at the planning stage, and thereafter as required.
  • Draw up a fire-management plan including identifying potential ignition and fuel sources.
  • Establish the control measures and have an evacuation plan in place.
  • Implement and enforce appropriate process and general fire precautions at all stages of the event.
  • Provide adequate means for raising the alarm and suitable and sufficient escape routes.
  • Provide suitable and sufficient firefighting equipment.

Barriers, fencing and crowd management

  • Choosing the correct barrier system or fencing is vital to ensure crowd safety. Understand the different types, their strengths and appropriate uses. Select a suitable supplier, who will be able to provide all the necessary drawings, plans and risk assessment. A barrier system must be built in the correct way to ensure it does not pose any risks to the public.

Information and welfare

  • Ensure the audience is well informed to aid crowd management. Information should be provided via the event website, social media, leaflets, event tickets, a telephone hotline, information points, informed stewards, site maps, event program, etc.

All the checklist points in the Purple Guide can easily be incorporated and translated into the U.S. incident command system.

In Houston, the grief and news cycle continue, and any loss of life, when preventable is always unbelievably sad. When the investigation inevitably finds that lack of command, control, coordination and communication contributed to the tragedy, we will hopefully identify lessons that we must then learn.

In the meantime, the U.K.'s national event planning document may offer a checklist to those in the planning phase of their events.

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