Special Events: Pre-Event Planning Checklists

In the summer months, there are a huge number of celebrations, festivals, concerts, fairs, outdoor sporting activities, and numerous other events that draw large crowds – and, largely for that reason, present difficult challenges. Under normal conditions, these events generally proceed smoothly, and with few problems. However, local emergency managers must be ready when something does go wrong, which can happen as a result of either a natural, a technological, or a human-caused hazard.

Many deaths and a large number of injuries at major public events will continue to occur around the world and across a wide spectrum of activities. Highly competitive sporting events such as soccer matches, as well as rock concerts and festivals, tend to produce spectator-generated incidents, whereas air shows and auto races are more likely to produce participant-generated disasters. Mitigating and coping strategies are needed when advance assessments fail to accurately identify the potential for disaster at such events.

Large national or international gatherings (e.g., National Special Security Events, or NSSEs, which are designated by the U.S. Department of Homeland Security to be potential targets for terrorist/criminal activity) require additional considerations that are normally handled at the national level. As such, local and state jurisdictions place a greater focus on pre-event planning problems – e.g., physical layouts, spectator management, public safety, public health, and medical care – for small- to medium-sized events such as parades, fairs, concerts, and air shows. By having a pre-event plan in place, jurisdictions can reduce response times, discuss contingencies, and develop trust before something suddenly “goes wrong.”

NIMS, ICS & Special Events 

One of the key sets of guidelines for special events is the “Management of Domestic Incidents,” spelled out in Homeland Security Presidential Directive (HSPD)-5 – which stipulates that the National Incident Management System (NIMS) be used in such events, just as it would during any other national-emergency situation. NIMS provides a set of standardized organizational structures – such as the Incident Command System (ICS), multi-agency coordination systems, and public information systems – as well as the requirements mandated for the specific processes, procedures, and systems designed to improve interoperability among jurisdictions and disciplines in various areas, including but not necessarily limited to the following: training; resource management; personnel qualifications and certification; equipment certification; communications and information management; technology support; and continuous system improvement.

ICS is an effective management system that provides sufficient flexibility for local adaptations. One “best practice” in this field was demonstrated at the University of Missouri’s Summer Fire School, where Bruce Peringer, Director of the Missouri Fire and Rescue Training Institute, used ICS to manage many of the school’s most important events and activities. By doing so, he was able not only to manage those events and activities but also, and at the same time, give the school’s firefighters an opportunity to learn much more about the ICS structure and its many uses.

More often than not, though, those in charge of special events at the local level have not previously managed an event using ICS. In addition, some participants may have a general awareness of their own roles, but do not have previous experience or extensive knowledge of special events per se. Special event planning may not, for example, be a routine or recurring responsibility for: (a) relatively new emergency managers; (b) personnel from emergency operations organizations such as police, fire, medical services, and public works agencies and organizations; and/or (c) representatives of other community organizations – both public and private.

Pre-Event Planning 

Depending on the location, some form of legislation usually governs, restricts and/or postulates the guidelines mandated for public events, or at least some aspect of such events. Some events, particularly larger or high-impact events, may even require special state or local legislation. Local ordinances usually (but not always) provide the health and medical guidelines that must be followed. The promoters of an event should in any case consider obtaining legal advice early in the planning stage, particularly as related to the following: (a) liabilities; (b) permits; (c) inspections; (d) fees/charges; and (e) insurance.

Planning Leader Responsibilities 

The leader of the planning team is responsible for monitoring the progress and satisfying all legal requirements throughout the planning process. Pre-event planning is probably the best time to research the statutory authorities needed as well as the emergency powers that might be required – e.g., isolation/quarantine, emergency evacuations – by the various parties involved.

Political considerations are always important in the local community. One way to help persuade elected political officials to support an event is to show the financial and quality-of-life impact that a successful event would have on their communities (and/or personal careers). Explaining the likely positive impact would also encourage the same officials to support the public-safety coordinators assigned by providing adequate local resources and funding.

Critical Crowd Densities 

Preventing the build-up of large accumulations of crowds, particularly within short time periods, is critical when planning an event in confined spaces – especially when spectators may be frustrated by their inability to see what is happening.

John J. Fruin, Ph.D., P.E., of the Metropolitan Association of Urban Designers and Environmental Planners Inc., identified critical crowd densities as a common characteristic of crowd disasters in a 1981 study titled “Causes and Prevention of Crowd Disasters.” He found that critical crowd densities are approached when the floor space per person standing is reduced to about 5.38 square feet.

Spectator Management/Crowd Control Spectrum 

Crowd control guidance and information is available: in literature and press reports; from the promoter, private security organizations, and police, fire, and emergency medical authorities; and, for visiting dignitaries, from personal security services and government agencies. All of this information would be helpful in predicting potential problems that must be addressed during the planning process.

Major crowd issues to address include: (a) Size – Maximum numbers permitted are often established by regulation for safety reasons; and (b) Demographics – The composition of the audience, including the age and gender mix, should be determined during the planning process.

If young children are likely to constitute a relatively high proportion of the audience, additional facilities might be needed – e.g., nurseries or family bathrooms. The need for rental strollers also must be considered. Audiences made up of young children or elderly people – who are more susceptible to crush injuries than teens or younger adults – also might require additional medical facilities. Certain types of events may attract various groups of spectators who sometimes require special attention – e.g., rock concerts, sports events, religious gatherings, cultural events, and outdoor concerts.

All Hazards Considerations 

Special events also present several additional hazards, including: (a) Propane gas cylinders (for cooking); (b) Pyrotechnics (for lighting and special effects); and (c) Oxygen tanks (for emergency medical services).

In most communities, the fire department is the agency that responds to calls involving hazardous materials. The best way to plan for the handling of hazardous materials, in most areas and situations, is to inform the fire department ahead of time about potential hazards and their probable locations. Providing fire service a grid map with a description of the possible hazards reduces the response time and enhances preparedness.

Depending on the locality, planners need to consider how to handle all relevant hazards that may occur. The risk at each event needs to be evaluated for everything from abandoned vehicles to wildfires – and everything in between.

Contingency Plans 

Important questions related to ICS and contingency planning include the following:

  • What weather conditions may require cancellation of the event?
  • What weather conditions may lead to postponement of the event?
  • How will storm warnings be monitored?
  • What plans are in place to cope with sudden and severe weather conditions – tornadoes, for example?
  • Will shelters be available?
  • Who has the authority to make emergency decisions, and at what point does he or she exercise that authority?How will notification be made of a cancellation or postponement?
  • Are additional security personnel, including police, on standby or on call if there is an immediate/unexpected increase in the need for additional security?
  • Have ambulance services and local hospitals been advised of the timeline and nature of the event, the expected spectator profile, and any potential medical problems?
  • Have fire and rescue services been notified of the nature of the event and identified the services that might be required?
  • Has the jurisdiction considered how to respond to an intentional – i.e., man-made CBRNE (Chemical, Biological, Radiological, Nuclear, Explosive) incident?
  • Has the need for and/or method of mass decontamination been considered?

Credentialing Planning 

If credentialing is to be used, event planners tasked with jurisdictional responsibility may want to consider, well beforehand, the following questions:

  • Who and/or what groups of people, specifically, will be credentialed?
  • Will credentialed personnel require a check of their police records?
  • Who will conduct the record checks?
  • What criteria will be used for various levels of access?
  • Who will make the final decisions on who will or will not be credentialed?
  • Who will be responsible for credential production?
  • Who will authorize credential production?
  • What is the format to be used for receipt of the information necessary to produce the credential (e.g., electronic, paper)?
  • Will photographs of those credentialed be needed?
  • Where will the credentialing center be located? (The credentialing center should be located outside the secure zone and accessible primarily if not exclusively to those requiring credentials.)
  • Who will secure this location and provide the security needed for credentialing personnel and their equipment?
  • How will the security of the credentialing database be maintained?
  • How, and to whom, will credentials be distributed?

Public Health/Medical Care Planning 

Questions related to medical logistics planning for important events include the following:

  • How many medical stations will be required onsite?
  • Will medical personnel operate in a facility to which injured persons must make their way?
  • Will clearly identified medical teams patrol the spectator areas?
  • How will spectators identify the medical personnel onsite (uniforms, vests, badges, etc.)?
  • Will vehicles be available to transport spectators to the medical facility?
  • Will medical vehicles be appropriate to the terrain?
  • Will four-wheel-drive vehicles be required for off-road areas (or golf carts for high-density spectator areas)?
  • If an ambulance is not required, will a “chauffeuring” system be available to transport persons from the onsite medical facility to their own vehicles or other transportation?
  • How will medical personnel be notified that there are spectators requiring assistance?
  • What means of communication will be available to permit attending medical personnel to communicate with offsite medical personnel, event organizers, security, and other support personnel?
  • Are there any sponsorship conflicts between the event sponsor(s) and medical service operators?
  • What level of onsite medical care, if any, is required?
  • What mix of medical personnel (first aid providers, paramedics, nurses, doctors) is required onsite?
  • Who or what agencies or healthcare facilities will provide these personnel?
  • How will the cost for their services be funded?
  • Are the health service providers from the local area? If not, how will their services be integrated with those provided by local medical services?
  • How will security concerns for healthcare personnel onsite be addressed?
  • Are the personnel credentialed required to respond to anticipated medical problems? And/or to go through additional training?
  • Will medical personnel or vehicles need special credentials to allow them access to all areas of the venue?
  • Will medical personnel assigned for public safety workers be available at the event?
  • Are aero-medical services, and landing zones, available?
  • Where is the closest trauma center?
  • Have primary and secondary receiving hospitals been identified in advance?
  • Do area hospitals have adequate beds and enough personnel capacity to respond to the potential emergency requirements of the planned event?

Communications Systems Planning 

Communicating with the crowd is essential at all special events.eally, several communications systems should be established to enable messaging to different sections of the crowd – both inside and outside the event venue. The Incident Command Post should have access to the central communications system, interoperability, and communications with the Emergency Operations Center (EOC – if a center is activated). If emergency personnel use a separate sound system, they need some means of muting or silencing the stage sound system. Signboards, strategically spaced throughout the venue, should be available to enhance the public-address system.

Public announcements are an essential part of a safety plan for any major event. Some questions to consider in this area include the following: (a) audible volume and content of announcements; (b) multi-lingual requirements; and (c) public-address system placement and back up.

Lessons learned from past special events indicate that contingencies in communications routes also are needed. Here are some of the more important guidelines to follow: (a) Do not rely solely on cellular telephones; (b) Ensure that there is an integrated, multi-agency frequency available for communications; (c) Consider the laying of landlines that can be used for telephone service; and (d) Include the use of amateur radio operators for communications.

The Event, Post-Event Hot Wash & After-Action Report 

After the special event begins, responsibility for the preplanning process is transferred to the Planning Section Chief under ICS guidelines. After the event, a quick “hot wash” – to focus on what went right and what went wrong – puts a jurisdiction in the strongest possible position to handle the next event even more effectively. In any case, an after-action report based on post-event discussions should be written and promulgated for use by future leaders and managers. The compilation of such a report would at the same time provide a permanent record of the lessons learned, best practices, and possible solutions, as well as potential pitfalls and problems that should be incorporated in the planning efforts for the next event.

Pre-event checklists for special event planning are available for download and print, click here.

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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