• Plan & Prepare for States of Emergency

     
    FROM THE Summer 2016 ISSUE
     

    To minimize risk at events and ensure the safety of participants, anticipate what can go wrong and prepare in advance.

In January 2011, hundreds gathered in downtown Spokane, Washington, for the city’s annual parade celebrating the life of Martin Luther King Jr. Everything seemed normal— except for a backpack left unattended along the parade route. Public facilities workers noticed and reported it, and Spokane police immediately altered the parade route as a precaution. “It was a bomb,” recalls Frank Sebastian, chair of Seafair Emergency Management Group and emergency manager for Seafair Events. “We avoided a Boston that day,” he says, referring to the tragic Boston Marathon bombing in 2013.

Sebastian, who has an extensive background in emergency management at both federal and local levels, lauds the citizens who noticed the backpack, as well as the local authorities and on-site emergency management teams who took the incident seriously and acted quickly. He uses the incident as a cautionary tale for event organizers and planners, and urges them to take crisis and emergency management planning seriously. “Planning for an event and planning for a crisis or disaster actually have a lot in common,” Sebastian notes. Risk management and emergency preparedness is as much a priority as planning the food, décor and entertainment.

At every event—from the smallest, exquisitely planned wedding to a public outdoor event with more than 100,000 attending— something will go wrong, notes Kevin Miller, corporate director of security for the Davenport Hotel Collection in Spokane. “The key to minimizing risk and averting disaster is to anticipate what can go wrong and prepare in advance,” says Miller, whose background includes more than 27 years managing security with the U.S. Secret Service and the Central Intelligence Agency. “And rule No. 1 in response is ‘see something, say something,’ no matter how trivial it might appear.”

He notes, “At the Davenport, advance preparation involves the basics, like what to do in case of a fire, as well as plans for how to handle a natural disaster that closes the airport for days,” stranding convention guests at the hotel.

There are four primary tenets in risk and emergency management, according to Sebastian: mitigation, preparedness, response and recovery.

“Start with risk assessment and evaluation,” Sebastian recommends. “Your goal is the safety, security and enjoyment of the participants and continuation of the event. Identify everything that can go wrong and what needs to be done if it does. In a wedding, the cake might fall over. At Seafair, a boat might flip. At an outdoor concert, the weather could turn bad.”

TENET NO. 1
MITIGATION

As part of the evaluation process, define what the response will be for every situation to mitigate potential damage and injury. For example, Sebastian says, “If the wedding cake falls over, your recovery plan might be to run to the bakery down the street. If a boat flips at Seafair, we have to temporarily halt the race, get rescue teams out to the boat, turn off the fuel, get the driver out and remove the boat.”

In 2014, that’s exactly what happened when a Formula 1 Powerboat driven by Mike Maskall flipped in the final heat of a race. According to eyewitness reports, Seafair organizers and emergency response teams were so well prepared that the emergency response took only about 15 minutes. The driver was unharmed, and the event resumed.

Miller says the evaluation process should also include a review of the security and emergency provisions at venues, with any special quirks noted: “For example, the Davenport is a historic hotel; the guest elevators are too small for the gurneys from the ambulance. We have a plan to handle that. We also plan for other emergencies like natural disasters, civil disobedience, chemical spills, network disruption and loss of power—which affect elevators, electronic door locks, air filtration systems and food service, among other things.” The Davenport Hotel’s event planners brief guest event planners on Davenport’s protocols so that everyone is prepared.

Ask questions to determine where there might be gaps that need to be addressed by the organizer if they haven’t been addressed by the venue, says Miller. What is security like at night? Is there a manager-on-duty program? Are there armed guards? Are the public doors secured in the evenings?

TENET NO. 2
PREPAREDNESS

The next step is collaborative planning with relevant parties to deal with perceived risks. Both Miller and Sebastian routinely interact with law enforcement and emergency response agencies, regulatory bodies, vendors, sponsors, volunteers, event marketing, and promotional staff and representatives from venues. Planning for a small event might only involve the venue staff, the event planner, and vendors supplying lighting, sound and catering.

Decisions are made about who needs to be involved when something happens, how staff will be trained, what the steps will be to resolve the situation and who’s in charge. For major events, like Seafair, an incident playbook (a checklist or flow-chart response guide for risk items) is created. Tabletopincident scenarios (paper simulations of possible incidents) involving key participants— including volunteers—are run to test the plan. Periodically, live exercises, utilizing emergency responders, are held to further test the plans and provide hands-on experience for responders. Seafair runs at least one live exercise each year.

Sebastian says that live simulations are invaluable in emergency management preparation. The Reno Air Show goes through a full-scale exercise every June. So when a P-51D Mustang crashed into spectators at the Reno Air Show in September 2011, killing 11, including the pilot, and injuring 69, responders reacted immediately. “It was horrific,” says Sebastian, “but responders were well trained. Critically injured patients were transported to trauma centers within 60 minutes, significantly reducing the loss of life.”

TENET NO. 3
RESPONSE

With risks identified and plans in place, the next step is to stage the event for quick, effective response. “This means having the right resources and the right people at the right places to handle emergencies,” says Sebastian. “The bigger the event, the more medical emergencies (like heart attacks), the more criminal incidents (like theft) and the more disorderly conduct (like brawls in the beer garden). The event organizer owns these.” At the hotel, says Miller, when something goes wrong, it almost always involves alcohol. “Don’t overserve,” he warns. “That increases risk exponentially.”

TENET NO. 4
RECOVERY

Recovery—whether from a major incident or a minor medical emergency—is the goal once something does happen and the situation has been addressed. “After a flood, recovery might deal with rebuilding and debris removal. At an event, we usually mean continuation of the event—getting everything back on track safely,” Sebastian says. As part of the planning, event organizers and their emergency management teams will have protocols in place to determine how—and if—the event may proceed; who makes the decisions; how information is communicated to the staff, responders and the public; and if evacuation is required, how that will be handled.

According to Miller, the presence of VIPs, particularly government officials, brings additional complexity to an event and requires special handling. Notable guests frequently have their own security teams that work in tandem with the event’s planners and security to address timelines, arrival, departure, crowd control, safety perimeters and emergency extraction. Site evaluations and planning often occur with the VIP’s security team months in advance.

“Sometimes trade-offs have to be made between security requirements and the appearance and staging of an event. Some things just won’t do from a security perspective,” Miller says. Although this can be an inconvenience, Miller points out that when a celebrity or dignitary is present, the event automatically has a higher degree of security, both private and public, making the event much less of a soft target than it would otherwise be.

POST-EVENT
WRAP-UP

Once the event concludes, there is still more work to be done. While details are fresh in everyone’s minds, it’s time to create after-action reports that outline what worked, what didn’t, lessons learned and what changes need to be made. “It’s critical to solicit input from everyone, including volunteers,” Sebastian says. “Then, immediately revise your plans to get ready for the next time.”

In preparing an emergency response plan, Sebastian says, planners should have detailed descriptions of the audience targeted, the number of attendees, the venues and what’s gone wrong in the past—along with enough time to plan for their events. “At Seafair, we get months to prepare; a long lead time is very helpful,” he says.

Miller advises planners and event organizers at venues to consider not hosting an event if security is going to be problematic to manage or if the event has a history of property damage or destructive behavior by attendees. “While it’s hard to say no to business, sometimes it’s the smarter choice,” he says.

Sebastian and Miller have similar goals for events and measure success the same way. “The goal is to have a safe, secure event,” Miller says. “Something will always go wrong, but we’ve succeeded if incidents were handled quickly and effectively and the attendees had a great time.” Sebastian recalls crazy, intense days when there seems to be one incident after another all day long. “But at the end of the day, when I step outside the command center at Seafair after the air show and a visitor stops me to say, ‘Wow. That was really neat,’ I know we did just fine.”

It’s tough to stage an event. Murphy and his law are always first to arrive. You have to deal with personalities, you can’t control the weather, and VIPs change plans—often. According to Miller, security and emergency management directors, as well as event planners, set high expectations and are generally hard on themselves when evaluating how things went. “Perfection is difficult to achieve,” Miller says, “but you can always strive for excellence.”

The CDC defines close contact as within six feet or less, for 15 minutes or more with someone who tests positive for COVID-19. At gatherings of many kinds, contact tracing is used to trace the people that someone has come into contact with, before they learn that they have tested positive. This allows the people that the sick person came into contact with to be aware of the situation, and to make health-informed choices. 

 

In 2020, Houston First Corp. (HFC) reported that the city was slated to host 252 meetings and 611,000 room nights. By March 14, the Bayou City had already hosted 115 conventions and 137,400 room nights. Then the pandemic hit, and meetings and events across the country came to a screeching halt.

We asked Michael Heckman, acting president and CEO of Houston First Corp. (HFC) how the health crisis has influenced the organization’s business model moving forward.

 

Chances are, you won’t know you’re living through history until it’s too late. It’s already happening. A chain reaction has been set in motion and the ground has begun to slide beneath your feet.

This past year has been a whirlwind to say the least. As a global pandemic sent the world reeling, planners were left grasping for footholds as the event industry was brought to a standstill, and many of the most fundamental elements of live meetings and events were cast in a new light.