Emergency Management & Special Events: Challenges, Support, Best Practices

A special event is typically any planned activity considered likely to attract a group of 10,000 or more known or estimated participants and/or attendees in a defined area where access by emergency vehicles may be delayed (or, in some instances, limited by the host jurisdiction to a much smaller number).

The National Response Framework (NRF) sets the stage for the overall context of managing special events from an emergency manager’s point of reference. The policy enunciated by the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) is that the federal government provides support and resources to state and local governments for significant special events. The Secretary of Homeland Security possesses the authority to designate an event as a National Special Security Event (NSSE).  The NSSEs represent a unique category of public gatherings that – because of their political, economic, social, and/or religious significance – may make them particularly attractive targets of terrorism or other criminal activity.

If an event is designated as an NSSE, the U.S. Secret Service, which serves as the primary agency for coordinating federal support for such events, employs NIMS (National Incident Management System) principles and any applicable structures/organizational components within the Framework – e.g., a Joint Field Office, Emergency Support Functions, or Incident Annexes – to carry out its NSSE responsibilities. The most recent National Security Special Event was this year’s Presidential Inauguration in January in Washington, D.C.

Collaborations, Cooperation, and Responsibilities Typically, special events are local or state matters handled in various collaborative partnerships with state, tribal, and local governments, private-sector organizations, and non-profit agencies or organizations, including colleges and universities. Almost all emergency managers eventually are responsible for at least a few special events within their jurisdictions for which detailed security planning is required.

Many “best practices” in planning for special events are available for researchers and planners throughout the nation. The Special Event Emergency Action Plan Guide, prepared and published by the Bureau of Plans of the Pennsylvania Emergency Management Agency (PEMA), is a commendable example that provides a list of the procedures recommended for creating an Emergency Action Plan for special events. The establishment of adequate Emergency Medical Services is the first priority listed in the Guide. Other recommended/desirable components include on-site facilities to provide protection from weather (to ensure patient safety and comfort), an adequate number of beds and cots, and basic life support equipment – enough to provide for the evaluation and treatment of at least four patients simultaneously – and, finally, adequate light and ventilation.

The Guide also makes it clear that a licensed physician, a special-event emergency supervisory physician, various basic life and advanced life support systems, equipment, and people – specifically including emergency medical technicians (EMTs) and paramedics – a triage area, and a temporary morgue (because a worst-case scenario must be a part of any such plan), also would be needed.

The principal components of PEMA’s Special Event Emergency Action Plan include, among other things, sections on: (a) a notification chart; (b) notification procedures; (c) group and individual responsibilities; (d) a list of emergencyentification, evaluation, and ification policies and procedures; and (e) a helpful list of preventive-action recommendations. The Guide also includes several appendices, which may be used to cover: descriptions and locations of a special event; an analysis of the potential for disaster; the need for training, testing, and updating; the posting of a notification chart; an EMS response plan; a glossary; and recommended responses to specific disasters and other emergencies.

A Capital Guide for D.C.-Based Events The National Capital Region (NCR) – i.e., the greater Washington, D.C., area, which of course is the site of many national, regional, multistate, state, and local special events – has developed more than its share of exemplary practices. Nearby Arlington County and the city of Alexandria in Virginia, as well as Montgomery County and Prince George’s County in Maryland, provide many of the leading security professionals assigned to work with their NCR counterparts at the numerous D.C.-based special events taking place every year.

Loudon County, somewhat farther out in Virginia, has developed an online resource tool for special events planning that the county makes available to all sectors and all jurisdictions in the area that are hosting a special event. In addition, a special-events coordinator is available to walk any organization through the county’s process – which encompasses a host of necessary tasks ranging from securing a special-event permit from the county to: (1) the development and promulgation of an online event information form; (2) acting as liaison to agencies that the county suggests the organizer might want to contact and/or work with in the planning process; and, finally (3) providing a comprehensive list of the numerous (and frequently complicated) rules and regulations that might apply to a specific event.

In the District of Columbia itself, the Mayor’s Special Events Task Group has designed, developed, and published an equally valuable publication – Your Guide for Planning a Special Event in Washington, D.C.  The D.C. Guide differs in several ways from the other models mentioned, because it is designed strictly for event organizers, rather than emergency managers, and focuses on preventing or at least mitigating potential problems during the planning stages rather than during the special events per se.

West Virginia University (WVU) also has published a Special Events Planning Guide, which is designed for campus events that include 500 or more participants. The WVU special events are designated as such by the Director of University Police and are not covered by any other specific emergency-response plan, including but not limited to those governing the security of stadiums, gymnasiums, auditoriums, dining halls, and student centers. In addition to providing an overall concept of operations, WVU’s Planning Guide includes sections on communications, facility evaluations, and training. Among its several appendices are an Emergency Action Planning Checklist, an Emergency Action Planning Template, a Special Campus Event Staff Briefing Roster, and a Post-Event Assessment, all of which are considered useful models that other special-events planners might want to consult.

Finally, the Security Standards Policy and Planning Committee of the American Public Transportation Association (APTA) has published its own Recommended Practice for Security and Emergency Management Aspects of Special Events. This voluminous guide, which is designed primarily for use by those responsible for public transportation systems and facilities affected by special events, serves as a particularly helpful model for emergency managers because the planning, training, exercises, technology, and partnership building related to any special event necessarily touch upon all modes of transportation in the area or jurisdiction hosting such an event.

Kay Goss
Kay C. Goss

Kay Goss has been the president of World Disaster Management since 2012. She is the former senior assistant to two state governors, coordinating fire service, emergency management, emergency medical services, public safety, and law enforcement for 12 years. She then served as the Associate Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) Director for National Preparedness, Training, Higher Education, Exercises, and International Partnerships (presidential appointee, U.S. Senate confirmed unanimously). She was a private sector government contractor for 12 years at the Texas firm Electronic Data Systems as a senior emergency manager and homeland security advisor and SRA International’s director of emergency management services. She is a senior fellow at the National Academy for Public Administration and serves as a nonprofit leader on the Board of Advisors for DRONERESPONDERS International and for the Institute for Diversity and Inclusion in Emergency Management. She has also been a graduate professor of Emergency Management at the University of Nevada at Las Vegas for 16 years, İstanbul Technical University for 12 years, the MPA Programs Metropolitan College of New York for five years, and George Mason University. She has been a Certified Emergency Manager (CEM) for 25 years and a Featured International Association of Emergency Managers (IAEM) CEM Mentor for five years, and chair of the Training and Education Committee for six years, 2004-2010.



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