Basic Venue Safety
for Festivals, Concerts, Shows, Protests, Parties, and More
by Susan Basko, esq.
When you gather a large group of people for an event, your topmost priority should be their safety. Disasters happen very quickly and are almost always avoidable. The conditions that cause a disaster are almost always the result of those running the event taking a shortcut, not thinking things through, being lazy, or being cheap (or being too poor to do things right and going ahead and risking lives). By "disaster," we mean something that causes multiple deaths or injuries. In a venue disaster, the deaths will usually be from smoke/fire, trampling, or crushing.
The place where the event is being held is the venue. The venue may be indoors or outdoors. Disasters happen at outdoor venues, too. Different types of events have different purposes, but the safety factors on all of them are quite similar. Here are some basics:
Capacity: Every venue, indoors or out, has a maximum legal capacity of how many people are to be allowed in. Exceeding the capacity is extremely dangerous. The capacity of an indoor venue may be stated as one number if standing and another number if seated. If a venue is such that patrons are flowing in and out, then you must use counters and see how many are inside before letting more in.
At most venues, the legal capacity is posted on a sign on the wall. If you make a habit of looking at these signs, you will see that most venues have a much lower legal capacity than you might expect. The legal capacity is based on square feet, purpose, whether patrons will be standing or seated, and if seated, at chairs or at tables, number of exits, number of toilets, and other factors. It is great for an event to draw a crowd, but if the crowd exceeds the capacity of the venue, it is dangerous.
Permits/ Inspections: Almost every locale requires any venue to be inspected and licensed as a permanent venue or permitted as a special venue. These permits and inspections go a long way in providing for safety. Most locales will inspect the layout of the space, the exits, the smoke detectors and sprinklers, lighting, electricity, platforms and stages, structures, props and hangings, sanitation, and any food service. Many locales have written laws, rules, or policies that spell these factors out in detail. You should work with people who know the rules and follow them. Buy the guidebooks and have your staff use them.
Layout: The floor layout for an event should be done in advance to scale with a computer rendering. It should be done according to the local laws. By law, there must be large amounts of space between two tables. By law, there must be a very wide open space in front of and around any exit or pre-exit. A pre-exit is the exit from a room to another space that is not the outdoors. A venue may have 5 or 6 pre-exits from the event space to the outdoors. Each pre-exit must be carefully planned and the space around it must be laid out properly. At set-up time, the floor is measured and marked with chalk, so the layout matches the rendering.
Exits: Disasters often happen because there are inadequate exits or exits have been blocked or locked. Even if a place has been inspected and licensed, if a manager or security guard gets it into their heads to lock exits, for their reasons of "safety," they can invalidate the license, invalidate the insurance, and endanger lives. Never allow anyone to lock or block an exit. If a venue has been licensed or permitted based on a certain number of exits, if one of those exits is not functioning, at any time or for any reason, the entire venue becomes unsafe and usually also is invalidating its license and insurance and well as endangering lives. If a venue needs to hire an extra set of people to stand by a door to make sure people do not sneak in, or whatever the concern is, then that is what must be done. An exit cannot be locked or blocked for any reason. (Managers of stores or fast food restaurants often lock or block one of the exit doors, thinking that this will slow down a thief. This practice is illegal and very dangerous and should be reported to the town or city. Exits are required by law and causing any exit to not work can easily lead to disaster. If you work for a business that blocks or locks exits, you can make an anonymous complaint to the town or city. )
Never allow any item to be placed in front of an exit. Items that some may be tempted to place in front of an exit include a ticket table, merchandise table or booth, autographs table, coat rack, etc. Laws in most places require wide aisles or spaces between tables or between banks of chairs, and at least 10 feet of clearance in all directions at any exit. Most places require lit "Exit" signs. Venues should have emergency light systems that go on if the other lights fail, or in case of smoke or fire.
Exit Path: The exit path should be designed so that each succeeding exit space is bigger and wider than the last. This is equally important at an outdoor venue as indoors. There was a terrible crushing disaster a few years ago at an outdoor festival where the exit gates led to a wide space that then led to a narrower tunnel. Too many people got into the tunnel and people were crushed to death. In an indoor venue, make sure the exit path is not made narrower by lines to bathrooms, furniture, a snack bar, magazine racks, etc. If the lights are out and the place is dark and filled with smoke, anyone walking or crawling to an exit should meet no obstacles. Turn out the lights and try it.
Fire Hazards: Disasters have been caused by such things as sound insulation that was not fireproof, use of pyrotechnics, use of open flames or candles, decorations that were not flameproof, patrons using lighters to see, and other such things that, in hindsight, were easy to detect. Absolutely any item that is used as a structure, decoration, prop, or furnishing in a venue should be flameproof or highly flame retardant. Hold a lighter to it for 10 minutes and see if it burns. Curtains, insulation, table cloths, upholstered chairs, decorations, ceiling tiles, etc. must all be flameproof. Pyrotechnics or flame should never be used indoors, and if outdoors, should only be run by licensed professionals in a space that has been inspected by a fire marshal. Venues that bend these rules are the ones where a disaster is more likely. There was a disaster that was caused by a spinning birthday candle that lit decorative ceiling tiles on fire. Always think of the worst case scenario and plan accordingly.
Structures: Collapse of stages or structures is sure to be disastrous. Hire only a licensed, bonded, insured company and have the structures inspected by an outside source. If a stage or structure appears to be top heavy, flimsy, off-balance, shaky, etc., it probably is. Such situations may occur because those holding the event are trying to cut corners, save money, do things cheaply. This is unacceptable.
Crushing: Crushing disasters happen when too many people get into one space at one time. That's simple and logical, but preventing it is a fine art. At outdoor venues with open lawn area, venues still often have the area just in front of the stage as a seating area, often with tickets. This is to prevent stage crush.
Even if an entire venue has seating, there can be crush if open seating, first-come, first in, is used. This is sometimes called "festival seating," a term that makes no sense. At festivals, the audience does not sit, but walks around. It might also be called "General Admission." This type of ticketing has been outlawed in some places. It is much safer to assign tickets to seats.
It is now very common at festivals to have a large empty space in front of the stage, protected by fences and guards. This is to prevent stage rushes as well as to give leeway to prevent crushing if the crowd begins to push. However, people might also be crushed against such a fence, so fences that are flexible and will give way if needed are often used. It is best to only allow into any section of space the number of people that can be safely accommodated in that space. That requires refusing entrance once any space is already filled.
Rowdy Patrons: Patrons who are intoxicated or agitated can present a danger, obviously. The usual techniques of screening at the entry and a good security force work well to prevent fights. Rowdy people are also the ones likely to cause a panic that leads to a rush to the exits. A rush to an exit can happen quickly. Security should be trained to isolate and contain any incident, so it does not result in a rush of people, with danger of a crush. Making sure the venue is laid out properly and that it is not over capacity also helps avoid crush or rush.
Other Causes of Crushing: Crushing and trampling can cause many deaths and injuries very quickly. Other causes of crushing include locked or blocked exits, a real or perceived sense of danger, such as smoke, an odor, a sound that is or is perceived as a gunshot or explosions, a real or perceived terrorist attack, a real or perceived special happening, such as the belief that a special star is about to appear on the stage, etc.
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