Crowd Panic: Proactive versus Reactive Responses2013-08-28T16:56:45-04:00

By Heather Kessler


Crowd Panic: Proactive versus Reactive Responses

Crowds like individuals, display various types of personality traits. Individual tribulations can create stress and may lead to disastrous outcomes if handled incorrectly. In addition, crowd problems can create chaos and danger if not taken seriously and dealt with appropriately.

Imagine attending a public event, such as a professional soccer game. You know there will be a large volume of people congregating at the stadium. However, you do not foresee any danger as part of the crowd. Your adrenaline rushes as you watch the game with excitement, and everything seems to be sound. Then suddenly, you sense a disturbance among the people around you. Before you can rationalize your perceptions, you feel a push from behind and in an instant you're lying on the ground face pressed into the dirt. You use all your strength in an attempt to stand up again, but the crowd does not notice or care to help with your struggle. Instead they proceed to trample on your helpless body to save their own lives. You begin to panic. Then you come to the realization that the area has succumbed to pandemonium. You are presently meaningless in the current environment.

Panic is a problematic issue pertaining to crowds and can be extremely disruptive. When one is faced with the situation of a crowd out of control, it is important to be aware of the potential risks involved with crowds. Also, a strong background in crowd management issues is essential to understand the logistics of large gatherings.

Causes of Panic

The first step in preventing crowd panic is to be aware of the causes. Some of the main triggers include:

  • Fire - Fire can be deadly and if the necessary escape procedures are ambiguous and/or not easy to follow, panic is inevitable.
  • Emotional Instability - A simple fight that becomes uncontrollable could cause insecurity within a specific area in the environment.
  • Fear - Fear of endangerment or harm can arise from emotions related to panic and may lead to deadly consequences.
  • Anger/violence - Violence is foreseeable when feelings of anger or rage take over a crowd.
  • Spatial limitations - In an attempt to escape a dangerous situation, there must be an allotted amount of space for every person to egress the facility safely. Otherwise, people could be trampled or may suffer from suffocation.
  • Demographics - Specific locations or groups of people cause crisis events. The nature of the event creates an environment for possible disruptive behaviors. Such as demonstrations (anti-war or anti-abortion) that by nature of the emotional environment can develop into situations. Another example occurred recently at a local high school basketball game when a fight broke out on the court. Team members were dawn into a brawl on the court while spectators caught in frenzy also became involved (Moses).

These triggers are often a result of poor supervision and a lack of preparation for the events. In response, effective security measures and sufficient crowd management will help control panic situations before they get out of hand.

Environmental Impact

Panic becomes uncontrollable due to environmental factors. Location of public events is vital, and all aspects pertaining to the environment must be carefully analyzed. Most importantly the setting is to be safe. People are to feel comfortable as "a comfortable crowd is a happy crowd and a happy crowd is often a safer crowd" (Sheard 6). Creating a secure haven when they are on the site avoids negative feelings and disorderly behavior.

Layout is another important factor. Facility design is critical in crowd management. The key is a proper access route into and out of the complex to prevent accidents and crowd panic. One step in planning ahead is ensuring the circulation system's primary goal is to save lives. Every possible route or exit out of the building must be adequately dimensioned so that everyone can egress the building safely. Rod Sheard describes the best way to plan a circulation route is "in a way similar to the branches of a tree; small groups which eventually meet other larger groups and so on until you get to the trunk of the tree which is the public road" (Sheard 6). It is important to abide by local statutes and ordinances to preclude legal liability.

Structural composition is another environmental impact of panic. Each facility has a limit on the number of people who can fit inside at one time. If the maximum capacity is exceeded there is a greater risk of crowd danger, because the architectural implementation was not designed for additional weight of overcrowding. Also, the size of the building should accommodate the estimated number of people occupying the allotted space who will attend its anticipated events. For example, a nightclub building would not compare in size to a soccer stadium. Adequate exits and entrances are exceedingly essential because they provide the crowd with a safe route into the facility and, most importantly, back out of the facility (Sheard).

Examples of Crowd Panic

A recent event at a Chicago nightclub reveals the tragic consequences of crowd panic and poor management skills. On February 17, 2003, the E2 nightclub opened for business and ignored the eleven building code violations cited seven months earlier. Allegedly, a dispute evolved on the overcrowded second floor and the use of mace or pepper spray sparked the panic. In trying to escape through the only exit door available, hundreds of people stampeded across helpless bodies. Twenty-one people were killed while fifty-seven others were injured, resulting in one of the nation's deadliest stampedes. The owner of E2 nightclub is liable to face criminal charges (Cohen).

Less than a week later another tragic incident occurred in Rhode Island. Hundreds of people gathered in a one-story building to hear the rock band, "Great White." During the first song, the band shot fireworks into the air creating an impressive lead to an evening of enjoyment for the fans. Then three minutes later, the edifice was on fire, causing panic and many deaths. In a black cloud of smoke, fans desperately tried to make it to the only exit available. Many were burned and trampled to death in the process. The fire left ninety-six people dead and close to two hundred more injured. Fire Chief Charles Hall said, "They tried to go out the same way they came in. That was the problem. They didn't use the other three fire exits" (Zuckerman 8A). Currently, the dispute is between the band and the club owners as to whether or not permission was granted to use the pyrotechnics for the show.

Less than a month after the E2 nightclub occurrence there was a brawl in a New York Nightclub. The club was located on the second floor of an arcade in Times Square. The fight left eight people shot, two stabbed, and two others trampled in an attempt to escape turmoil. The foremost concern with all three of these recent events is sufficient exits and the absence of supervision (Associated Press).

Similar Historical Incidents

Looking back on past events where crowds have led to disorder, it is possible to learn lessons from those experiences and also prevent other similar circumstances from happening again. Even tracing as far back as the Kent State incident, it is evident that crowd management has been an escalating issue for many years. On May 4, 1970, unrest involving approximately 1500 students at the university caused a violent response from National Guardsmen. The issue concerned President Nixon sending young Americans into a foreign country (Cambodia) to fight a war that Congress did not endorse. Utilizing First Amendment rights, the students protested the war on campus. As the protests escalated, crowd violence prevailed in burning of buildings, stone throwing at national guardsmen, verbal war chants, and aggressive behavior. In response the Ohio National Guardsmen threw tear gas, used bayonets, and ultimately fired upon the student protesters: "A total of sixty-seven shots were fired in thirteen seconds." ( Analyzing the response of the National Guardsmen it is clear crowd management is imperative. "Effective crowd management does not just happen but is based on careful thought, planning and execution" (Lewis 5).

The York Daily Record provides a list of historical stampede deaths. One example was a charity basketball game in New York City. On December 28, 1991, eight people suffocated in an attempt to enter the gymnasium of City College of New York. Another notable incident occurred on December 3, 1979, in Cincinnati, when a rush to get inside a concert by The Who left eleven people crushed to death (Cohen).

Problematic Similarities

In most cases, similar problems with crowd behavior can be identified. Capacity is a concern and careful analyzing and planning is necessary. To determine maximum capacity, the size of the facility must accommodate the number of people attending the event. If the maximum capacity is exceeded, discomfort and frustration could take over the crowd and lead to panic. Surpassing the capacity, a common element in many crowd deaths, can be easily prevented.

A trigger is prevalent with most panic problems. Frequently one of the main causes listed above is considered a trigger. For example, fire, emotional instability, fear, anger/violence, spatial limitations, or demographics could produce panic. A psychological imbalance is present when coping with the dilemma. Often times, a person does not think rationally when part of a crowd. Chaos creates selfishness and the decisions people make are based solely on self-preservation.
Entrances and exits are vital because they provide a safe route into the facility as well as a safe route of egress. The number of exits depends on the size of the facility and the number of people it will be accommodating. The Chicago nightclub accessed only one exit door for the hundreds of people inside the building. If more exit routes would have been available, the stampede could have been prevented (Adkins).

Supervision is imperative in controlling crowds, especially at events with large volumes of people. Security officials are generally the most common form of supervision. It is necessary to educate and train security officers on the potential risks of crowd behavior. Consistent and repetitive training will effectively prepare security staff for ways to prevent panic and how to react to problematic situations. Chris Innace, author of "Supervising During Special Events", in Security Supervision, identifies five psychological factors security supervisors should be aware of:

  • Security - People may feel keen about joining a crowd for security.
  • Suggestion - When someone is part of a crowd their own morals and belief system may shut down because they focus their thoughts on energy on the leader of the group.
  • Novelty - Individuals may join a crowd for excitement or in search of an adventure.
  • Loss of Identity - People tend to forget they are individuals and believe they are immune to consequences when participating amongst a crowd. As a result, they may partake in deviant behaviors (Innace 213). This type of behavior where people abandon their norms and act similar to the rest of the crowd is labeled deindividuation (Berlonghi).
Problematic Differences

The problematic differences relate to types of crowds. Crowds are diverse just as individuals display various types of personality traits. The overall crowd consists of smaller crowds. At a stadium there may be a group of women, men, children, and/or a group of disabled persons. The goal in creating a safe event is to consider these differences. In "Understanding and Planning for Different Spectator Crowds," Alexander E. Berlonghi discusses four types of crowds:

  • Ambulatory Crowd - People walk in and out of or to and from a venue. (Example: carnival or trade show)
  • Crowd of Spectators - People are present to watch an event, not to communicate with each other. (Example: football game or concert)
  • Participatory Crowds - People are involved with the activity. (Example: volunteers come on stage to perform with clown)
  • Expressive or Revelous Crowds - People have an emotional release. (Example: cheering or dancing)

These four categories do not include the problematic groups labeled escaping or trampling crowds discussed in this paper. The purpose of crowd management and crowd control is to prevent Berlonghi's four main crowd types from getting out of control.

Proactive versus Reactive Security Measures

The most important consideration to ask on this subject is how to prevent and/or react to this behavior. In addressing this question, evacuation plans are imperative and can be very helpful. Carl Adkins wrote the article "Developing Evacuation Plans" in Crowd Management magazine. Evacuation plans are created for safety in the event of an emergency. However, often times the plans are not followed precisely as intended. Therefore, Adkins claims, "it is critical that the majority of the plan be general in nature and that the emphasis is placed on parameters as opposed to specifics" (Adkins 18). In creating any effective evacuation plan he feels the following seven items are crucial.

  • Purpose - State in detail the functions and goals of the evacuation plan.
  • Policy - Communicate the policy of the organization clearly (safety and security procedures should be direct and easy to follow during an emergency.)
  • General Information - Be aware of all aspects of the facility, such as the structural design, the number of entrances and exits, spatial limitations, and location.
  • Define Potential Emergency Conditions - List all possible emergency threats to the facility. The list should be reasonably long because if a disaster can be foreseen, the probability of occurrence is high. One can never be over prepared for an emergency.
  • Responsibilities - Individuals will be assigned to particular duties during a crisis situation. However, if that individual is not present during the event it is necessary to have an alternate person trained and ready to respond to that individual's role. The responsibilities are to be limited and periodically reinforced through training. The Georgia World Congress Center (GWCC) uses an Emergency Control Officer in the system to designate who is in charge of procedures during emergencies. This alleviates stress for all the people involved in deciding when and how to use an evacuation plan.
  • Procedures - Communications is the key. How will people be informed of an emergency? How will they know the plan has been enacted? What forms of communication will they use? (Radio, telephone, sirens) These procedures must be thoroughly understood and practiced through repetitive training and spontaneous drills.
  • Evacuation Techniques - Evaluating the plan and design will identify any flaws. For preparation, examine the techniques and procedures and try to solve any possible conflicts that could arise. In addition, ensure it is approved by the fire marshal and aim to create liaison with fireman and police officials.

Liaison with fireman and police officials is critical for emergency situations. Liaison is a cooperative relationship between networks. This collaboration can save money and time. If they are previously aware of a facility's evacuation procedures they can be more accommodating and helpful if discrepancies arise in the plan.