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Critical Considerations for Outdoor Event Planning

Outdoor events are gathering points for locals and tourists in the centers and on the fringes of nearly every community. Whether it’s a local music festival, arts and crafts fair, cultural festival, or an annual community event, people look to these occasions to get outside and reconnect with the world. While event-goers get to focus on food, market goods, and the carnival atmosphere, the emergency management community has to focus on safety and security.

Public safety leaders work tirelessly to track intelligence, protect perimeters and access points, restrict contraband, and generally protect the public from all-too-familiar nefarious events. However, there are other, more common risks that rarely make national news. In 2011, the Indiana State Fair experienced a severe weather event that caused a stage to collapse. Seven people were killed and 58 were injured. In 2016, one person was killed, and two others injured when lightning struck their tent at the T-Bois Blues Festival in Louisiana. Also in 2016, one was killed and another 20 were injured after a severe storm hit the Wood Dale Music Festival. In 2022 another stage collapse caused by powerful winds killed one and injured dozens at a festival in Spain. These are just a sampling of significant weather-related incidents at outdoor events with serious consequences.

Most recently and most wisely, the City of Virginia Beach advised the 2023 Something In The Water music festival to cancel their Day 3 (April 30) events due to forecast severe weather – an EF-3 tornadic event occurred and caused significant damage in the area, but the risk to event patrons and staff was mitigated.

Severe weather is a frequent risk to outdoor event goers. As emergency managers, we often work with event planners and the facilitating organizations to account for life safety during emergent weather conditions, but sometimes risks and vulnerabilities are overlooked. Using the Wood Dale incident as an example, a severe weather plan was in place, but not activated in a timely manner. A nearby school could have been used as a shelter but wasn’t. Instead, people sought shelter from a storm under a tent, which was blown off its moorings and collapsed on the crowd.

Every emergency management office should have a Special Events Plan, Annex, or Appendix (possibly to a Severe Weather Annex) to their Emergency Operations Plan and, just as importantly, know when to activate it. These Special Events Plans must have considerations for outdoor events and severe weather.

A good Special Event Plan uses your risk assessment to identify the weather-related hazards that could impact your outdoor events. For example, a spring or summer festival may need to account for extreme heat, lightning, hail, high winds, and tornadoes. Factoring for those hazards in your Special Events Plan and incorporating the following considerations can help reduce risk.

  • Identifying triggers for delayed openings and cancellations before crowds arrive.

Determine the windows of opportunity to reduce risks by alerting event goers that the event is postponed or cancelled due to weather. Trigger times may be hard to define, but consider reviewing school or sporting event delay/cancelation policies to identify similar triggers for outdoor events.

  • Assuring appropriate and accessible emergency notification systems are in place.

Emergency notification systems should be directly accessible to emergency management so there are no delays in the notification process. Emergency managers generally have access to WEA/IPAWS and outdoor warning sirens, but festival-specific smart phone applications with push notifications, PA systems, digital signage, and other means of on-site communication will require coordination with event management.

  • Identifying areas of refuge and shelter.

Identified safe harbors should be built to withstand the hazard risk and account for the full number of attendees. They should be easily and quickly accessible to event participants and account for people with accessibility requirements.

  • Emergency signage along ingress routes

Working with a permitting office and event coordinator to ensure signs are posted along entry paths and throughout the outdoor event space can save critical time when people need shelter. Simple signs with directional arrows pointing the way out and toward safe harbors can also help to reduce panic when people don’t know where to go. Providing egress signage on ingress routes gives event-goers an opportunity to identify and recognize emergency routes and shelters before a weather emergency occurs.

  • Accounting for emergency needs of differently-abled populations.

The outdoor event should address more than basic ADA accessibility requirements. If the event is on soft surfaces like grass or dirt, how well can people who rely on wheelchairs, walkers, and prosthetics navigate wet, soggy surfaces? Soft or muddy ground can become traps for differently-abled individuals, impeding their ability to quickly seek safety. People with vision and hearing impairments should also be considered when addressing emergency notifications and egress. Red egress markings that are spraypainted on green grass will not help many who have color vision deficiencies.

  • Ensuring emergency pedestrian egress routes are maintained and are ADA compliant.

Egress routes should always be kept clear of people, chairs, blankets, bicycles, and any other impediment to safe passage. Egress routes should also meet standard ADA requirements. If a specific ADA egress route is required because of the event location, ensure clear, visible directional signage is posted.

  • Considerations for mass panic and reducing associated risks like trip/fall hazards and protrusions.

When planning for emergencies at outdoor events, it’s important to factor for panic. Protruding objects, tent stakes and tethers, temporary thresholds at gates, and uneven ground surfaces can become trip and fall hazards when people are hurriedly moving in mass. It’s best to establish emergency egress routes where these types of hazards can be averted, minimized, and/or clearly marked. When possible, best practices include defined egress routes that draw people toward safe passage and shelters.

  • Reducing potential projectiles such as portable canopies, bag chairs, and loose materials.

When severe weather happens, improperly secured or tethered items can become dangerous projectiles. Portable canopies, stages, and other temporary construction should always be secured to meet the worst possible wind scenarios for the season. Loose materials, whether construction, cooking, or entertainment can also hurt people when thrown by high winds.

  • Requiring first-aid/medical stations

Often times, medical schools and EMS organizations will provide staff to support first aid and medical stations. While these stations may not provide all the services a severe weather event may require, they can support the needs of people suffering from heat-related illness, other medical emergencies, and traumatic injuries at the outdoor event.

  • Providing misting tents and/or cooling centers

When heat is the weather-related hazard, ensuring on-site misting tents or other cooling centers at outdoor events can prevent heat-related illness. A partially enclosed tent with fans and cool water to drink can prevent serious heat-related health consequences.

  • Establishing re-unification areas.

A good Special Events Plan will identify re-unification areas that can be utilized after an emergency event. Lost children/lost parent stations are a best practice for normal outdoor event operations and can also serve as designated re-unification areas. Re-unification areas can help emergency responders identify the number and names of missing people. It is best to not rely solely on people with cell phones for re-unification; cell service is not guaranteed after an emergency weather event.

  • Emergency safety tips through public outreach and education

Coordination with the event coordinators to provide weather-related safety tips is one of the best ways to prepare people for emergencies. Event posts on social media, through their smartphone applications, or through traditional media sources should include personal safety considerations for severe weather. Messages about hydration on hot days, plans for sheltering during a storm, or simply “don’t stand outside in an electrical storm” may be the difference between life and death. Ticketed events could also provide an outlet for printed safety tips wherever tickets are purchased.

For information about how Integrated Solutions Consulting can assist you in creating a thorough Special Event plan, read more here or contact us directly and one of our emergency management experts will be in touch as soon as possible.