Stadium evac gets a new game plan

After the collapse of the stage at the Indiana State Fair that killed five people last August, officials tried to determine if there was any way the tragedy could have been avoided. The Indiana incident was the third outdoor show last summer where...


After the collapse of the stage at the Indiana State Fair that killed five people last August, officials tried to determine if there was any way the tragedy could have been avoided.

The Indiana incident was the third outdoor show last summer where severe weather became the star by destroying a stage, placing band members and ticket holders in danger. During Cheap Trick’s Ottawa Bluesfest performance July 17, 2011, rogue winds blew the roof onto the stage, jeopardizing the band and hundreds in the crowd. Then, on August 7, 80-mph winds in Tulsa, Ok., blew Flaming Lips’ 15-foot video screen off the back of the stage.

Outdoor event managers could use a better weather warning apparatus, but receiving and acting on timely weather warnings is just one part of the problem. The other part is moving people quickly to safety after warnings are received.

Whole new ball game

A new breed of crowd evacuation simulation software, called SportEvac, developed at the National Center for Spectator Sports Safety & Security (NCS4) at the University of Southern Mississippi was launched last summer. NCS4 was established in 2006 to provide an academic vehicle to improve security and crowd management protocols at the nation’s major sports and music venues.

Annually, an estimated 200 million people attend sporting events at some 3,000 stadiums, arenas and ballparks in this country. Millions more buy tickets to concerts. The Department of Homeland Security considers any assembly of 350 or more people to be soft targets for terrorism. SportEvac was developed through a grant from DHS to give stadium authorities better emergency planning visibility.

Using blueprints from actual sports facilities, Southern Miss researchers have created virtual, 3D e-stadiums that can be populated with as many as 70,000 individually animated human avatars programmed to respond to threats in as many unpredictable ways as humans might. With SportEvac, emergency managers can now see how fans behave, or misbehave, when spooked by natural or man-made security threats. Earlier evacuation simulators were generally limited to crowds of less than 10,000, which might work for smaller, indoor arenas but are not adequate when simulating crowd control at packed outdoor stadiums.

“Since it’s nearly impossible to use a live audience for evacuation training, SportEvac provides us the capability of simulating a stadium or arena crowd virtually,” says NCS4 Director Louis Marciani.

Marciani says the key is planning and rehearsing. “I don’t think you can get people safely out of a stadium without practicing, because we don’t know how crowds would react to things like a suicide bomber,” he says. “Chaos will occur, but there can be organized chaos.”

Recurring nightmare

Getting 12,000 state fair concert-goers or over 100,000 college football fans to safety in a hurry in the event of severe weather, a terror attack or another emergency is a recurring nightmare for stadium security and disaster managers at any high-profile music or sports venue.

It’s not just sudden bad weather in the form of high winds, lightning strikes or tornados that worries stadium crowd-control officials. What keeps disaster planners, police, fire, hazmat, and other public safety officials awake some nights are visions of, say, terrorists launching several smoke canisters from a boat cruising down the Tennessee River just across Highway 158 into the south end zone of the University of Tennessee’s Neyland Stadium during a Saturday afternoon football game. Or from a cart on the golf course that surrounds the Rose Bowl. Or over the wall of Wrigley Field from the sidewalk on Waveland Avenue.

As the red or green smoke cloud drifts into the stadium, the crowd will have no way of knowing the plume is harmless. The intent of the terrorists is not to kill anyone with the smoke. The intent, instead, is to incite a stampede for the exits among the fans.

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