Author(s): Jesse Roman. Published on July 1, 2019.

Event Horizon

Created out of tragedy and propelled by a forward-looking mission, a fast-growing event safety group hopes to improve the safety of gatherings worldwide


Events worldwide are growing both in numbers and in size, according to industry experts, and include new safety concerns. At right, revelers gather at a recent electronic dance music event held in Las Vegas.

At 8:45 p.m. on August 11, 2011, an announcement boomed from the loudspeakers near the stage at the Indiana State Fairgrounds in Indianapolis: Despite the National Weather Service’s warning of severe weather, the night’s much-anticipated concert by the group Sugarland would go forward. Even as the skies around the crowd darkened, most of the thousands in attendance remained where they sat or stood, eager to see the main attraction. But the show would not go on.

According to an after-incident investigation by the Indiana Fair Commission, just a minute after the announcement, a powerful wind gust shifted the concrete barriers that anchored the stage’s guy lines and triggered a cataclysmic failure of the stage’s temporary roof and support columns. In an instant, the entire 70,000-pound roof structure came crashing down on the unsuspecting crowd, killing seven people and injuring dozens more. Details of the event soon flashed across television screens worldwide, as politicians roundly criticized event planners and accused them of putting profit over customer safety.

Almost immediately, many saw the Indiana stage collapse as a bellwether of sorts for the entire live event industry. Not only were industry leaders aghast at the loss of life, they were worried that the incident might drive away fearful customers, says Steve Adelman, a lawyer and one of the world’s leading consultants on safety, security, and risk management for live events (and an occasional NFPA Journal contributor). As the fallout continued in early 2012, Adelman and other likeminded event safety professionals were routinely called to Indianapolis to participate in discussions on how to improve safety.

Among those present was Adelman’s longtime friend Jim Digby, manager of the rock band Linkin Park. “Jim and I agreed that we're not people to just kind of wring our hands—we are people of action, we're doers,” Adelman said in a recent interview with NFPA Journal. “And we figured out that if we don't do something to not only enhance the safety of live events, but also to enhance people's feeling that they're safe at live events, they're not going to go and we're not going to have work. And we didn't want either of those things to happen.”

From those discussions, an idea emerged to create a nonprofit membership organization, called the Event Safety Alliance, which would enhance crowd safety by spreading safety education and awareness across the event industry. “A lot of what we're doing is cultural,” Adelman says. “We're trying to change a culture from one focused on ‘the show must go on’ to one focused on putting life safety first.”

Since its founding in 2012, ESA, like the live event industry generally, has “grown by leaps and bounds,” says Adelman, the organization’s vice president. Membership and resources have increased, as has attendance at the group’s annual weeklong conference, the Event Safety Summit. ESA now produces a podcast, hosted by Adelman, as well as a digital magazine, “Event Safety Insights,” available at ESA experts are a constant presence at industry events and conferences across the world, including the NFPA Conference & Expo. Later this year, ESA will for the first time dip its toe into the codes and standards development world when it publishes an ANSI-accredited standard called Crowd Management. The document will be, Adelman claims, the world’s first accredited standard to solely address management of crowds at live events.

NFPA Journal caught up with Adelman to talk about the evolution of live event safety and his role, the growth of ESA, and to learn more about the organization’s new Crowd Management standard and how it complements NFPA 101®, Life Safety Code®.

What is the state of the live event industry today compared to years past in terms of the number and size of events?

There are more live events than ever. They are bigger than ever. They are generating more money than ever. They have to because on the music side, no one's selling records—that part of the industry is not thriving in any respect. Rather, the revenues are through touring and sales of merchandise and other ancillary things. For sports, there are more teams at more levels than ever before, and that's true globally. We often think first and sometimes last about professional sports, but in many parts of the United States, college and other amateur athletics are very important. And then there are corporate events, which is a field that didn't exist a generation ago. Corporate activations and corporate-sponsored music or sporting events is a huge growth industry.

What is a corporate activation?

Last week I was in Las Vegas speaking at a conference for people who put on corporate activations and how to do them better. One of the presentations was a talk by a senior marketing person for Under Armour, and she showed what's called a sizzle reel. It was a video of Steph Curry, the Golden State Warriors basketball player, being taken on a tour through Asia by Under Armour to promote himself and the Under Armour brand at various events. In one, Under Armour closed off a major intersection, I think in Tokyo, to do a Steph Curry event in the middle of the city in the middle of the day. I can't imagine the logistics involved for that. They also had Curry take over school gyms and had him doing three-point shooting competitions against local people. There are also all sorts of concerts and other events set up for fans and fan interaction. This type of marketing event is becoming very common. Major corporate brands now sponsor all sorts of events.

Since there are more events worldwide than ever before, and a seemingly heightened awareness of what can go wrong at these events, is event safety becoming a cottage industry of its own?

No, I would not say that. And I don’t think that's really the goal, either. Certainly, for some big music festivals there will be what we call the safety guy. But generally we don't want safety to be in its own silo. Rather, safety should be part of everything. It should be everyone's responsibility. Here is how ESA says it: We want to help engineer the transition from “the show must go on” to “life safety first.” We don't want only the risk manager thinking about safety and everyone else doing their own stuff.

Is that beginning to happen?

It's a process. There are some people who have already understood that taking the time to work safely is good business. It saves lives, it saves dollars. It makes people look upon your shows favorably and yields fewer losses that cause your insurance premiums to go up. Safer is better in every way. It also keeps the lawyers away from your door, which is nice. There are certainly people who get that. Having said that, “the show must go on” is a longstanding tradition. It's going to take quite a while for that habit to be broken. There are still some pretty significant players in live event industry who prefer not to think actively about safety. And you know, they've had some fairly bad losses and still they seem resistant. Those of us who make up ESA ask and urge and point out all the affirmative reasons why safety is good business. And every so often we remind them that if they don't work safely, bad stuff happens, and bad stuff is unpleasant as well as expensive.

You said ESA is growing fast. Why do you think so many people are drawn to join?

Tragedy has made safety a bigger issue, which is top of mind in a way that a generation ago it wasn't. A generation ago there certainly were tragedies, like the crowd-crush incidents at The Who concert in Cincinnati in 1979 or the Hillsborough Stadium soccer match in Sheffield, England, in 1989. But we have more of them today and there's more coverage of them, and consequently more concern about them than ever before. ESA was born in response to one of those tragedies, and unfortunately the beat has continued to go on. The news provides a really compelling argument for exactly what we're advocating.

What are the main safety issues today keeping event organizers up at night? How are these concerns different than, say, 50 years ago?

The obvious one is guns. We don't have to sugarcoat that. The worst active shooter incident in US history was at a live event in Las Vegas, the Route 91 Harvest Festival. The previous worst active shooting incident in US history was also at a live event, the Pulse nightclub shooting in Orlando, Florida. The prescriptions to mitigate the risk of active shooters don't work especially well at live events. The usual instruction to run, hide, fight has some real problems when applied to environments that are dark, loud, and unfamiliar, and where a lot of people might be impaired in various ways.

Overseas where they don't have America's gun issue, they have bombings in unmarked trucks and that's obviously a significant concern. In addition, organizers of outdoor events have to worry about a severe weather action plan and getting people out of harm’s way. We also have to devote some serious thought to sexual assault. The #MeToo movement applies no less to live events than any place else. Any of these, and frankly all of them, should keep event organizers up at night.

Why did ESA create a new crowd management standard? What gap in the safety matrix is it intended to fill?

It's actually not just a gap, it's an enormous chasm. There is no crowd management standard, not in the US, not globally. There just isn't one, which is astonishing. ESA created a crowd management task group to create this standard because, even as we looked at what we think are the most sophisticated approaches and ways of thinking about crowd dynamics, we thought something was missing.

What was missing?

My training as a lawyer has made me very sensitive to what’s called the legal duty of care, which is that everyone has a legal duty to behave reasonably under their circumstances. When I look at a standard for events, I see a good starting point. It's a guideline, but is it a reasonable guideline under the circumstances of a given show? An example is crowd density, which is always important, but it is relatively less of a concern, or at least a different concern, at a classical music concert as opposed to a heavy metal show, where the density is going to be higher and the activity level within the crowd is going to be much higher. It's not just a matter of paying attention to the occupant load number, but also to what activities people will engage in, what the crowd’s expectations are regarding the event and their role in it, and what activities are reasonably foreseeable. Nuance like that is missing from the guidance out there now.

Given that each event involves such highly variable circumstances and seemingly requires a lot of flexibility, how did you go about crafting the standard?

ESA’s draft crowd management standard is not a typical ANSI standard. It's really a series of questions. We decided that, if subjective judgment is such an integral part of crowd management, let's honor that by helping event organizers make their subjective judgments in a reasonable fashion. Our standard poses questions for the crowd manager to consider in order to tease out important answers. When the crowd managers pose these questions to themselves—or to venue operators, security companies, event promoters, or medical staffs—they're going to acquire the knowledge necessary in that context to manage crowds most effectively. It may be putting too fine a point on it, but the way we've written the standard encourages people to think. That's a very different approach than most standards.

What’s an example of a question in the standard that a lay person like myself might not immediately think of when planning a live event?

I have the standard up on my computer right now, and completely randomly I just came upon section 4.2.3, “Signage.” And the first question after the narrative reads as follows: “When evaluating the effectiveness of signage related to wayfinding, exits, and essential services such as medical care, crowd managers must consider the circumstances in which patrons will experience it during all phases of the event, including arrival and departure.” So what does that mean in English? It means if your wayfinding signage is a lot harder to see than the signage for the beer vendor, you probably want to rethink your wayfinding signage. People ought to be able to find the bathrooms, the medical tent, and the exits at least as easily as where to get their next drink.

I assume the type of crowd also factors heavily into a lot of these decisions?

A lot. If my crowd is likely to be alcohol drinkers, they're going to need someplace where they can sober up for a while before they pick up the keys to their vehicles. If it's a crowd that's going to consume ecstasy, they're going to need a different medical environment—probably more hydration stations. Some people roll out of bed thinking about this stuff, but even a small show has so many moving parts that they might not have necessarily thought of everything. So the draft crowd management standard prompts them to think about these things.

How does this document differ from or complement the Life Safety Code and the life safety evaluation process? Do those things work together?

Absolutely. First of all, the Life Safety Code is the foundational material referenced in a number of places. It’s obviously the leading code regarding the movement of people in confined spaces. It has the force of years of existence in the industry as well as a vetting process that's second to none. The Life Safety Code also has these long lists of things that one should be doing or circumstances in which a life safety evaluation ought to be applied. These are things all crowd managers need to know, and rather than reinventing that wheel, or just paraphrasing it in a new place, we simply reference it and tried to build upon it.

What are the main differences in substance and approach between the new ESA standard and the Life Safety Code?

The ESA standard has a lot of focus on “why,” and the Life Safety Code doesn't—the code generally doesn't explain, it just says “do.” The Life Safety Code Handbook includes a lot of “why,” but the handbook isn’t the legally adopted document—the code is. One of the things we can improve about live event production is encouraging people to think reasonably, and to make reasonable decisions. The only way you can do that is to help educate people about what a good reason might be and why it's a good reason.

You mentioned this was developed by a crowd management task group. Who is in that group?

I'm the chair of the task group, which has roughly 35 members. Those people are either ESA members or members of the Entertainment Services and Technology Association who have identified themselves as people with knowledge in and interest about creating an ANSI standard regarding crowd management. Like ESA itself, the range of life experience and expertise includes every facet of live event production. There are promoters, producers, and people with technical expertise like stage rigging and lighting. There are security companies and people who have worked in music, sports, and corporate activations, all of which have crowds and crowd-related issues. There are insurance people. I'm a lawyer. We've tried to span the entire range of operational experience and expertise.

Where do you see ESA going from here? Will there be other standards?

There will be more standards development, such as one titled Safety Requirements for Special Event Structures, which is currently in the revision cycle, but frankly that is so labor intensive that it probably won’t ever be ESA’s primary focus. We are very glad to leave that to other bodies that are more equipped to do that sort of work, such as NFPA. We are very glad to partner with NFPA and take full advantage of all the hard work that NFPA members have put in over these years. Education and outreach are really ESA’s primary mission, and a lot of that is cultural. But cultural change requires time and a lot of conversation. We need to show that people talking about safety aren't scary or angry—we're you. We are part of the industry that we’re trying to change. We speak the language of our industry because we're so deeply invested in it ourselves. 

JESSE ROMAN is associate editor of NFPA Journal. Top photograph: Getty Images