Paul Wertheimer has spent four decades trying to help prevent deadly crowd surges since the 1979 The Who concert disaster in Cincinnati, Ohio, changed his life.
Eleven young people, ages 15 to 27, died in a crowd crush at Cincinnati’s Riverfront Coliseum.
“There were piles of shoes and clothing,” said Wertheimer, who responded to the scene as the city’s public information officer. “I couldn’t shake the feeling after studying this incident and being there.”
At the time, there were no federal regulations about crowd safety.
Fast-forward to 2021, and that hasn’t changed.
But the recent tragedy at Houston’s Astroworld festival, which killed nine people ages 14 to 27, has renewed questions about crowd safety — and whether national regulations are needed.
A hodgepodge of safety standards across the US
There is no federal law on crowd safety. But the National Fire Protection Association’s 101 Life Safety Code is considered the gold standard, said Wertheimer, who founded the Crowd Management Strategies consulting firm after The Who concert tragedy.
The code is revised every three years and has been adopted in more than 400 jurisdictions and agencies — from state fire marshals’ offices to local governments, said engineer Tracy Vecchiarelli, the NFPA’s standards lead for building fire protection and life safety.
The 2021 edition has several standards for crowd safety, including:
— Having at least one crowd manager for every 250 occupants at an event.
— In places larger than 10,000 square feet, the crowd density shouldn’t exceed one person every 7 square feet (about 2.6 feet by 2.6 feet).
— There must be adequate access to exits. In areas without well-defined exits, the exits can be distributed around the perimeter as long as they can accommodate the entire crowd.
— Life safety evaluations are required for events with more than 6,000 people. Those evaluations must detail safety measures in case of medical emergencies, natural disasters and other possible emergencies.
But not everyone has adopted the NFPA code. And some have adopted various versions of it — such as older versions, modified versions, or select chapters of the code, Vecchiarelli said.
That leaves a hodgepodge of laws and safety standards across the country.
“Of course, I would love for everybody to have the most up-to-date, most recent standards adopted and applied,” Vecchiarelli said, “because that’s what’s going to create the safest environment for everybody.”
She said anyone trying to see whether the NFPA safety code has been adopted in their area can check the NFPA CodeFinder.
When people are pulled ‘like corks out of a wine bottle’
Festival seating — where fans have no seats and can rush toward the stage — is the most dangerous setup for crowds, Wertheimer said.
“The danger of festival seating is that it forces people to compete against each other because everybody’s bought a ticket for the same price, and everybody is envisioning … they have a right to that perfect spot in front of the stage,” he said.
And the dangers of a crowd crush have been long documented.
“Intense crowd pressures, exacerbated by anxiety, make it difficult to breathe,” John Fruin, a retired research engineer, wrote in a paper titled, “The Causes and Prevention of Crowd Disasters.”
“At occupancies of about 7 persons per square meter, the crowd becomes almost a fluid mass. Shock waves can be propagated through the mass sufficient to lift people off of their feet and propel them distances of 3 m (10 ft) or more. People may be literally lifted out of their shoes, and have clothing torn off,” Fruin wrote in the paper originally presented in 1993 and revised in 2002.
“The heat and thermal insulation of surrounding bodies cause some to be weakened and faint. Access to those who fall is impossible. Removal of those in distress can only be accomplished by lifting them up and passing them overhead to the exterior of the crowd.”
Wertheimer said these scenes have played out in numerous crowd crushes, with people pulled out of the front of the crowd like a cork out of a wine bottle.”
That doesn’t mean festival seating should be banned, Wertheimer said. He said it can be “reasonably safe” when the NFPA standards are applied — especially when it comes to limiting crowd density.
“But here’s the rub,” Wertheimer said. “Reducing density means reducing the amount of people. Less people, less tickets sold.”
The importance of crowd management (not just crowd control)
Festival seating is just one factor that has contributed to deadly crowd surges, Wertheimer said. Another is improper crowd management.
There’s a big difference between crowd control — or trying to keep people in designated areas — versus crowd management, which considers the psychology of the crowd and predicts what problems might arise.
The tragedy at The Who concert in 1979 happened on a cold December evening. Fans had already waited outside for hours, eager to rush in and get the best standing-room spot near the stage.
So when the fans outside heard the band performing a soundcheck, they mistakenly thought the concert had started — leading to a deadly crowd crush to get in.
“Nobody communicated with the fans. Nobody knew what was going on,” said Wertheimer, who was chief of staff for the Cincinnati Task Force on Crowd Control and Safety — which was formed to investigate the disaster.
With proper crowd management, “the festival seating dangers would have been considerably, significantly reduced.”
No nationwide standards on event permits
Another potential gap in crowd safety is the lack of uniform regulations on event permitting, Wertheimer said.
“There are permits systems, but they vary from state to state and city to city. This is part of the problem,” said Wertheimer, who is also a former member of Cincinnati’s event permit review committee.
Without uniform standards, some jurisdictions can face a conflict of interest.
For example, local officials who want the economic boost of a major event may be willing to approve permits without pushing back on gaps in safety plans — such as plans to prevent or mitigate crowd crushes with festival seating.
Some may fear losing the event to an area with a less stringent approval process, Wertheimer said. “There needs to be some national consistency.”
Cincinnati revamped its permit approval process after The Who concert tragedy and even banned festival seating. The city later allowed festival seating again after adopting NHPA safety standards, Wertheimer said.
If he were still on a permit committee, Wertheimer said he would never support an application that involved festival seating if it didn’t include a clear plan for preventing and mitigating crowd crushes. But someone in a different city or state might.
What safety experts want to see happen
Broader adoption of the NFPA’s safety code would be a great start, said Vecchiarelli, the NFPA principal engineer.
But just because a city, county or state doesn’t use the NFPA’s standards doesn’t mean there are no safety rules.
“I think every jurisdiction probably has some type of code in place for emergencies and safety events,” Vecchiarelli said. “So it’s up to those local jurisdictions to enforce those.”
And some cities can learn from other cities’ tragedies. After The Who concert disaster, Cincinnati decided to open doors for large events 90 minutes before a show starts, rather than 30 minutes before to help prevent a surge, Wertheimer said.
He said another possible way to reduce the risk of a massive crowd crush during festival seating is to have barriers dividing the festival seating area.
But Wertheimer said he would like to see clear training standards for crowd managers; uniform licensing standards for all promoters; a common radio frequency or another mode of communication between private and public emergency personnel; and a broader adoption of crowd safety standards.
With stronger safety measures in place, he said, future crowd crushes might be averted.
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