Safety disasters have manifested in sports like soccer, horse racing, yacht racing, motor racing; and cultural pursuits like music concerts and public fairs, etc. and the causes have varied from poor crowd management and/or safety measures to bad weather, structural failure, alcohol abuse, hooliganism, fire, over-crowding, mechanical failure, and others.
In the news this past week, a safety operations plan for the Astroworld Music Festival in Houston, Texas in the USA, laid out protocols for emergency situations, but there was no plan in place for a crowd surge like the one that actually took place and resulted in death and injury. There is a long history of similar catastrophes at concerts, as well as at sporting and religious events. In 1979, 11 people were killed as thousands of fans tried to get into Cincinnati’s Riverfront Coliseum to see a concert by The Who. Other crowd catastrophes include the deaths of 97 people at a soccer match in Hillsborough Stadium in April 1989 in Sheffield, England, and numerous disasters connected with the annual hajj pilgrimage in Saudi Arabia. https://www.foxnews.com/entertainment/astro-world-operational-safety-plan-crowd-surge
Justice Taylor, who chaired the commission of inquiry into the ‘Hillsborough Stadium Disaster’ in the UK in 1989 declared, “There can be no safety without security,” and it is at events such as the Astroworld Music Festival, that these two tenets coincide.
Our own Justice Bernard Ngoepe’s report into the ‘Ellis Park Tragedy’ in April 2001 during a midweek Chiefs / Pirates derby, found that “no particular individual” was in overall command of security and that organizers, “grossly underestimated” the size of the crowd.
The Safety At Sport and Recreation Events Act, 2010; Act 2 of 2010, promulgated just too late for the FIFA World Cup that year is, a consequence of that commission and it governs how our events in South Africa are managed and policed today. There are many legitimate criticisms of this piece of legislation, but what is undeniable is that legislation is very necessary to ensure that public events are planned, set up, and managed safely. So the man on the corner who buys his daughter a ticket to a concert or a sports event is confident that she and everyone else who attends will be safe while watching it.
The Global Citizen event at the FNB Stadium in December 2018 was criticized because, irrespective of the public safety management inside the stadium, spectators were robbed of their cell phones outside the stadium while waiting for their Ubers.
Finger-pointing inevitably starts in the immediate aftermath of any event where people are injured or killed, and CNN, reporting on the Astroworld festival, said: “… Travis Scott (the main rap artist performing at the time) has maintained he did not know what was happening in the crowd during his set — disputing city officials’ account of his responsibility in the deadly surge.
“First responders began to hear of crowd injuries around 21:30, and the show continued for another 40 minutes, authorities said. And when questions emerged about why the show wasn’t stopped, officials said that it was not in their power!
The “ultimate authority to end a show (was) with production and the entertainer, and that should be through communication with public safety officials,” Houston Police Chief Troy Finner said earlier this week. “We don’t hold the plug.”
A 56-page operations plan for the concert shows a clear chain of command in case of an incident. The plan identifies the role of the executive producer as well as the festival director as the only people with the authority to stop the concert.” And that is the kind of the Holy Grail, that we arrive at a point where public events are managed without requiring the police to, well… police them. We’re not there yet in South Africa but it would be really good to have police performing crime prevention operations and arresting criminals rather than overseeing sports events that can be effectively and professionally managed by event organizers or venue owners and managers. Police can always be called upon if they are required because the law was broken, just like one would call the fire department if they were needed because something was burning.
It’s almost as if the resumption of sporting and entertainment events post the empty stadium era induced by Covid-19 has induced some sort of collective amnesia among us all. As a company that has worked in sport security since 1999 (1992 if you consider previous police experience), one certainty is that complacency is the greatest threat to success.
“It will never happen here,” or“ We have always done it this way,” cannot be our epitaph!