What Comes Next: Preparing to Face the ‘New Normal’

by Eric Stuart

Editor’s Note:  The following article was inspired by the author’s closing presentation at the 2016 Event Safety Summit. The thoughts expressed are his own and do not necessarily reflect those of the Event Safety Alliance.


How incredibly sad it is that before we even managed to arrive home from this year’s Event Safety Summit, we were once again counting the cost of another dreadful fire and the loss of 36 lives (‘Ghost Ship’ Warehouse Fire, Oakland California, December 2, 2016) . I cannot begin to express my sorrow for the victims and sympathy for their families. But I am also angry: angry that after such a successful conference, our memory of it should be blighted in this way. Was this not foreseeable, predictable and if so, entirely preventable?

Maybe if we had some attendance by ‘the TLAs’, the three letter agencies, they might see what it is we are seeking to achieve and how keen we are to do so. The Ghost Ship Fire should never have happened and should never be repeated...but it will be, and we all know it. Just because we care does not mean everyone does. Just because we can foresee such eventualities, does not mean others do.

The location of the Event Safety Summit seemed appropriate to me, just 90 minutes from Gettysburg, Pennsylvania. A few miles from where President Lincoln gave his address on Thursday, November 19th,1863, just over 150 years ago. So appropriate that I made plans before I left the UK to visit that spot as part of my journey. Lincoln’s speech would re-define the founding principles of the United States, the land of the free and the home of the brave, but it was also poignant that it took place at the then-new ‘Soldier’s National Cemetery and Monument’. Because there lay the bodies of some of the 500,000-750,000 Americans who fought for what they believed in.

Today, that fight continues, but this time against an enemy with no whose cowardice knows no bounds. An enemy intent on destroying everything that has been achieved by thousands of years of culture, education, knowledge, learning, science: destroying the history of the world and replacing it with a skewed and sick version of events and doing so in the name of a religion that the vast majority of that faith does not and will not support. In my opinion, the best way to beat terrorism is to continue the lifestyle they despise so much.

Georg Hegal, an 18th century philosopher gave us the words: “we learn from history that we do not learn from history". It is my heartfelt view that we should always glance backwards before planning ahead. So it was with some satisfaction that I related the story at the conference about how, in the midst of World War 2, with bombs raining down on London, tea parties were still held at the Ritz Hotel, and street parties continued to celebrate our Queen’s birthdays throughout six years of war.

More recently, in my working lifetime in London we continued our lives throughout the terrorism and bombings of the 70’s, 80’s and 90’s. Those at the conference will have heard me speak of the terrorist murder of a colleague, Yvonne Fletcher, the murder of soldiers and horses in Hyde Park and the many years of extensive death and destruction brought to our streets in that period. Even my own police station was bombed out of service but life continued and we still partied throughout.

One newspaper headline from that era has always fascinated me. It came in 1997 and read: ‘They were the brave few who saved the many, just 20 police officers evacuated 80,000 people in an hour-long operation’. It referred to a massive lorry (truck) bomb placed in Manchester with just a one-hour warning to evacuate the city centre and the small number of officers who risked their own lives to do so.

E Plurubus Unum - Out of many attacks came one group who risked their lives for others. Out of those many years of terror came one nation, not divided by fear but united in resolution to not be defeated. It was a little like 1945 all over again.

That remains the case today exactly as it should be: to date, I know of not a single event that has been cancelled in the UK because of the current wave of terrorist attacks.

It has been a normal year, but (and it is a big but) there is a new normal that we face. A normality that involves us having to think carefully about how a terrorist might hurt us and those we are charged with protecting: our staff, our audience, our teams.

Here is our dilemma then. Our security may find the knife, gun, and bomb with metal detectors, but what about the ceramic knife? Are we really going to start dismantling people’s shoes to find explosives hidden in the heel? The queues would be beyond anyone’s tolerance. Even if we did, only the biggest events could afford to do that and the enemy would surely just move to easier targets. Is that not what happened in Nice, France in July 2016 when a 19 ton cargo truck was deliberately driven into crowds celebrating Bastille Day on the Promenade des Anglais?

But even if we can secure our venues, then what? Who checks the food vendors, cleaners, toilet providers, the fence builders, stagehands and the hundred and one other site crew known and unknown that build the gig? Are you background checking them all, searching every van, truck, flight case and toilet as it arrives? If you are, well done for getting the budget to make that happen but that will never be reality for most events. In truth, is that not how many drugs arrive on event sites? Back home, many of the events are organised by local town councils or organisers with tight budgets. They get three quotes and normally someone in the accounts department goes with the cheapest. It’s called the procurement process and rarely has much to do with quality or due diligence in checking trader’s credentials.

Can we even discuss accreditation? One of the most complex, expensive and critical aspects of security on any site is the control of who gets where, when and how. Then we get a girl or guy on $10 an hour to try enforce it. They get chastised when they stop the festival producer: ‘Don’t you know who I am?’ That same person then screams at them when someone dressed smartly manages to sneak past them and meets the artist, yet when the artist arrives with more hangers than a rich girl’s wardrobe and all of them are ushered through without accreditation or with the artist’s own accreditation that no one has seen before. The staff are too scared to stop them and if they do, they get shouted at again. Oh, for the opportunity for artist management to come to the Event Safety Summit and understand that we are trying to keep their prized possession safe, as well as the public and ourselves!

If that is hard, just how empowered are your staff to stop a cop in uniform and thoroughly check their accreditation? What if that looks wrong? Are your $10 an hour people brave enough, supported enough and confident enough to say ‘No, sorry but I need to call a manager’. We call it subsidiarity: The guy or girl on the ground floor having the power to make difficult decisions and be supported at the most senior level, even if they make a mistake. No battle or war was ever won when decision making was taken out of the hands of those on the battlefield. Once politicians make decisions about the direction of the war, the war is generally lost.

In our world though, do we really have the resources, money or time to train those on the ground floor to do the right thing and be brave enough to support them if they make a mistake? Can we invest that bit of extra time and money into ‘on site’ training for the teams? Why not reward those who find drugs, false tickets, accreditation or weapons with some down time, a coffee in the control room and a handshake from the boss? It is what I try to do when I can, when the client lets me and when they are prepared to spend a few hundred extra dollars to do so.

But even if we do, it is still not enough. Apart from arriving in various event vehicles, we know that all around the world, drug dealers use devious methods to get drugs onto sites. They hide stuff weeks in advance knowing where we will build the fence lines. It is also too easy to throw a tennis ball full of drugs over a fence. So, if the drugs are still getting through, then weapons certainly can.

In Australia they have drafted legislation to make drug dog sweeps of event sites compulsory, but no mention of explosives or gun searches!! Not yet anyway.

Even if we do all that, we can’t stop the stolen aircraft, missile, or bag of explosives being thrown over the fence. The sniper in a high building nearby, the suicide bomber in the ticket check line. There is no end to the options and we can never cover them all.

But I am still over complicating it? On the 11th June 2016, in Nice, France, a man hired a lorry. It was empty, it was white, it was very plain right up until he drove it through a crowd at the end of their Bastille Day celebrations. 85 people, men, women and children, many of foreign descent on holiday and over 1/3 of them Muslim. That is one YouTube video I can never un-see and I only wish I could. It was that easy. The only limit to their means of killing people is the limit of their imaginations.

Our job is really simple -  just think the unthinkable. We used to say that in terms of the IRA bombings, they only had to get lucky once, we had to get lucky every time. It is only a matter of time. We know groups such as ISIS mean to do us harm and will continue to do so. One day they will get lucky and get through our defences.

In many ways the French were lucky on the night of the Bataclan. It is barely reported now that three terrorist bombers were outside the Stade de France where the French National Soccer team were playing Germany, watched by the President Francois Hollande. The fact that they arrived twenty minutes after kick off must have raised some suspicion. It now seems that only one was going to enter and detonate whilst two others would have detonated bombs during an evacuation. Certainly it would appear that only one had a ticket so it seems a likely scenario!  

That one was stopped by security as he tried to enter. He left and blew himself up, killing a bystander seconds later. The other two simply blew themselves up. Why didn’t they all wait for an hour, just wait for the end of the game? Why didn’t they join their colleagues in Central Paris to add to the carnage there?

That night, a call to ‘invacuate’, or keep everyone inside seems like a good one in the circumstances and one we must all consider as part of our plans looking forward. Certainly, evacuation is in itself an inherently dangerous procedure. If we have a secure venue and are confident in our processes, then keeping people inside must be an option we consider. It is lit, stewarded, has food and water and as far as we can tell, is more secure than the outside world. Even if an attack occurs inside, do we know that is not a precursor to a bigger one as people leave. One thing is certain, the ‘security advisor’ is going to have to work hard to persuade me that outside is a safer place than inside before I press the evacuation button.

I talked a little of Hillsborough last year [2015 Event Safety Summit]. In 1989, amidst a flurry of calls that people were dying, with almost no training and limited experience, a senior police officer listened to the calls of his colleagues from the ground (and those on horseback). He heard and ‘knew’ that fans were late, they often were in those days. They were supposedly drunk. Again, not uncommon. Some had no tickets, which was fairly normal for a game of this nature.

Despite all of this being pretty foreseeable, there was no plan, or at least not a properly thought through plan. The ‘distal causation’ of Hillsborough started years before with poor planning and a very poor stadium in both design and maintenance.

But that was all too far away for David Duckenfield, Police Superintendent of South Yorkshire Police to change. He had an immediate problem. He knew people were getting injured, crushed, maybe about to die. ‘So what’ – It was his job to do something, to stop them dying. ‘Now what’ – Make a decision – open the gate – phew, it worked, people are no longer getting crushed.

But then what? It seems there was no ‘then what’ and 96 people died because the gate led directly into an area where others were already getting crushed. I don’t blame David Duckenfield for those deaths, though he blames himself. He did what 99% of people would have done, he fixed the problem and breathed a sigh of relief.

How many of you have finished a gig and taken a deep breath, maybe a long beer (or stronger) and thought ‘we got away with that one’. It happens, it isn’t a great feeling, but it happens. What is unforgivable is to find yourself on a job months later realising you got away with it again and the same things happened but you still were not ready for them. We need to learn and not move on so quickly. We need to retrain ourselves to prepare for the worst. We need to accept one day it may happen and it will be up to us to fix it.

Our brains take time to accept change, just look at the runners at the end of the Boston Marathon. Many continued the race, not because of a selfish desire to finish, but because of a deep ancient physiological aspect of our DNA. We suffer from ‘Normalcy Bias’, our inability to accept that something has just happened that we hadn’t expected when we woke up and planned our day. It is not that we are not smart, we are, but this is deep and primeval occurring in a place deep in the brain where we are not too good at controlling (more later).  

We don’t like danger; we don’t cope with it occurring to us too often, so our brains try to help us see the best in any given situation.  On 9/11, the people on the ground floor in the first tower of the World Trade Center took an average of 3 minutes to respond to the screaming engine jets above their heads, the massive explosion that shook the building, a smell of aviation fuel and debris falling past their windows. Three minutes talking to colleagues, finishing emails, logging off computers, collecting belongings, looking for a leader to tell them what to do. On the higher floors, nearer the impacts and nearer the danger, the delay to action was nearly 5 minutes! Normalcy bias will kill us unless we train ourselves to overcome it.

Clever scientists talk about us having two brains, the emotional brain that lets us rationalise and consider things, and the lizard brain that just acts and reacts. The more developed the rational brain, the smaller the lizard brain and the slower it comes into play. Humans have the largest emotional brain and as such the lizard brain is sometimes painfully slow to kick in.

It takes time for the brain to process this new, strange and sometimes overwhelming information and recognize that the disaster is real: unless you know to expect them or have trained to override them.

Not sure about this? Well, neither was I, but try reading Amanda Ripley’s 2008 book, ‘The Unthinkable – Who Survives When Disaster Strikes and When’.

Because we can control it if we think consciously of it and recognise it when it comes. We can train ourselves to overcome normalcy bias. We can think the unthinkable and be ready for when it happens. Because when it does, we may be one of just a few on site that will act as the grown-ups for everyone else who is there. We will be sober, we will be sharp and we will react to save the public who will have no idea what is happening for the first few minutes or what to do about it.

Yet there is one more area which we need to investigate and be both brave and bold in tackling. That is the well-meaning but narrow minded security advisor, whose security blinkers allow them to see only one type of danger. Yes, I will do everything in my power, experience, ability and my budget to stop the terrorists getting through but no, I will not do that at the expense of all other factors. I will argue with police and security advisors who think it’s all about terrorism and who try to implement measures that in themselves may threaten safety.

On 12th June last year, Omar Matine attacked the Pulse nightclub in Florida killing 49 people. On 25th June we had Pride in London and on the 6th August, Brighton Pride, one of the largest in Europe. We have just had the two biggest Pride events in the UK with no issues, one of them just weeks after the Orlando attack and with very limited visible increase in security. The London Pride event was complicated yet enhanced by the fact that we had just voted in a new Mayor for London, Sadiq Khan, a Muslim and London’s first Muslim Mayor. He insisted on leading the procession and in doing so probably making him and his family vulnerable forevermore to those who would despise his association with our LGBTQ+ community. And of course he did it in London, on open streets and in an area where accreditation was a total waste of time as tourists strolled past with suitcases. What could possibly go wrong?

Yet at Notting Hill Carnival this year, just a few weeks after Brighton Pride, one million people attended in just two days. It is certainly a crowded event, in the media spotlight and would be a great target.

The police must have feared a Nice-Style lorry attack? Surely that is what they had in mind when they placed hostile vehicle mitigation (HVM) at the main entry points. The problem was they obstructed roads used by tens of thousands during ingress and egress, but would certainly have been needed in an evacuation. The police ‘stole’ 80% of the road width that I would have calculated as necessary evacuation width. Late in the afternoon of day two, with a crowd at a density of one person per two square feet, a ‘steaming’ gang of young men armed with knives and intent on snatching jewellery and phones ran through the crowd. The reaction of the crowd was to get away, quickly. They tried, but there was nowhere to run to, and as a result many fell, many had to be rescued from the floor by medical teams and police. Upwards of 100 people were being trampled and were rescued according to reports from officers who were on the ground that day.

But that was a short sharp incident. What of a prolonged gun attack with people running for cover but being blocked by HVM across the road? Even without any such attack, the crowds of people struggling to get through narrowed pavements was dangerous enough but thousands were gathered outside trying to get through the restriction, themselves becoming a perfect target for that which the HVM was supposed to prevent. Security out of balance with safety?

It is just one small example of where the focus on security had an impact on safety. Frustratingly as far back as 2007, I had fought the use of concrete blockers on the streets of Notting Hill for the Carnival for two reasons.

  1. They cause crowd congestion at the entrance to the site and as such then create a bigger crowd than would otherwise have occurred.

  2. If a car bomb were to drive up to them and detonate, they create a massive cloud of concrete shrapnel to rip apart the crowd on the other side of the barrier.

To prove it, we actually experimented with a concrete blocker at a military establishment in the UK. A smallish explosion next to a concrete blocker pulverised the material into shards that were anything from the size of pebble to that of a brick, all made of concrete, mostly razor sharp and all heading towards the ‘crowd’.

Back in 2007, the idea was immediately shelved but it took me quite a fight to get the ‘security’ guys to see that side of things. Then I learned from history that we had not learned from history as I arrived at the 2016 Brighton Pride (on the south coast of England) and see the same blockers being used to keep out terrorists. What exactly was it meant to achieve? Yes, it keeps the lorry from driving through the crowd but it also adds shrapnel if it detonates outside. We need to think beyond the immediate solution to one problem and avoid creating another equally dangerous one.

Our 2016 conference room was full of experience in the events industry, and it is you, the experienced many who will have to take on the mantle to tackle the others who do not understand the deeper implications of what they want to do.

They can add as much HVM as they like but, what happens when you need to get pedestrians through it quickly? You can have high security search scanners: as long as you are prepared to accept that queues outside will be longer and become a threat themselves.

Because it is we who will have the foresight, through events like these and through the learning from others to understand the bigger picture. These are the calls that I am asking you to make, the views you will have to express, the challenges you will have to put up against those who think they know better.

And if there is no such thing as 100% security (and there isn’t), then spending all your time, money and effort on keeping them out is only half a plan. What if they do get in, then what? There needs to be another plan, a plan B, the back-up plan.

As this article meanders towards its conclusion it is time to stop and put it all back together again. So let me sum it up in terms of the business we work in:

  • The public have come to our event to have fun

  • Their normalcy bias says those gunshots must just be fireworks

  • That explosion? “wow stage effects have come on these days”

  • That lorry driving towards them must be delivering food, gosh he has run over someone, he must be drunk!

  • It happened in the Bataclan. They thought it was part of the show

  • It happened at Pulse Nightclub

  • It happened at Nice – Total disbelief as the situation developing around them

  • It happened at the Boston Marathon attack where the runners, some covered in dust, debris and hit by flying articles, could not switch off the part of the brain that said they were there to run a marathon

But when it happens, we will know it is not part of the show. It should not be such a surprise because we have thought about it as a possibility:

  • What is your first priority?

  • Is there a safe place to get to on a green field site?

  • Where are the Emergency services coming from and how long will they take?

  • What on earth you are going to do in the meantime?

You are the most important person left alive: tackling a gunman or treating a casualty is not your priority, taking control of the shitstorm that follows is where you need to be in your head and thinking physically where you need to be and how to get there, with a couple of back-up options. That is you priority!

Fresh, rested and unstressed people can take 6-8 seconds to overcome the normalcy bias and start to accept the reality of the situation. That is a long time to wait to react in a terrorist attack. Tired and stressed people take longer, perhaps if you want to add drugs and alcohol into that equation……………

But you are ready, you are prepared. You practiced this day in your head and you know what needs to be done. You don’t wait 6-8 seconds, because you played these scenarios in your head so many times. You had no idea which one it might be but you knew one day, despite all your precautions, something like this might happen.

When everyone else is still trying to work out what happened, you are leading the frightened public to safety. You are directing staff on the radio, those $10.00 an hour staff who never saw this coming either. When everyone else is a sheep, you can be the lion. You can lead people to safety, or the fight back against the attack if the opportunity arises.

Because from many, any of us could be the ONE and we probably won’t get any choice in it.

This is our business, we know it better than anyone else and we will be the difference in that time between attack and the security services arrival.

Because we will accept what is happening quicker than anyone else, recognize it and deal with it until they all arrive.

Because this is our job, these are our customers and we owe them a duty of care that extends far beyond entertainment and enjoyment. We owe them a promise that together, we will make each and every one of them as safe as we possibly can.

We need to plan, prevent and prepare for as many eventualities as we can ever possibly imagine. We need to think like a terrorist, think what they might do next, anticipate it, prepare for it and react and respond accordingly on that day that you hope never comes.

But we also need to think like a customer and understand how they are going to react and how you can persuade them to react better, quicker, smarter. Inform them what is happening and don’t be shy. Tell them the truth and if you need to, shout and swear at them to move if you need to: overcome their normalcy bias whatever that takes.

Because we are many but we will create one from many – One. The ESA in the US, Canada, UK and around the world will have one vision, one desire and one intent: To keep our business as safe as possible and insist on:

Life Safety First – Demand Safe because we all deserve it.

Shelby Cude