Severe Weather Planning Improves Public Event Safety

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Bad weather happens, but good contingency plans can increase the safety of residents and visitors at festivals. These severe weather planning resources can help local governments reduce their public event risks.

Organizing an outdoor event without a comprehensive event-safety plan in place can be fatal, especially when severe weather is involved. With thousands of concerts and festivals happening around the country during tornado and hurricane seasons, effective focus on risk management — with on-the-ground follow-through — is crucial in order to keep the public safe.

The emergency management information and resources below can help local governments and their event planner partners implement severe weather planning for public events.

High Winds Collapse Stage Roof

Case in point: a stage roof collapsed and seven people lost their lives at the Indiana State Fair in 2011 after a rigging system failed in high winds.

In its report the Indiana Occupational Safety and Health Administration (IOSHA) cited the production company that owned and erected the stage for:

  • Failing to maintain and use current engineering calculations
  • Failing to provide appropriate, qualified supervision
  • Failing to develop a risk assessment plan

At a 2012 press conference, Lori A. Torres, Commissioner of the Indiana Department of Labor, which oversees IOSHA, also cited the State Fair Commission for moving too slowly to evacuate employees and attendees in response to reports of severe weather approaching. She also said the commission had an inadequate plan, and further, did not take necessary measures called for in the plan.

“A decision to evacuate employees, as well as state fair attendees, should have been made well before the wind gust hit the stage,” Torres said.

‘No Fluke’

According to a blog post from Brian D. Avery of Event Safety Services, Indiana’s then-governor Mitch Daniels termed the state-fair tragedy a “fluke” that no one could have anticipated.

“This was no fluke,” wrote Avery, who has more than 25 years’ experience in the events, tourism and attractions industries, and is a life-safety speaker and University of Florida professor. “This incident resulted from a combination of lack of planning and structural failure. This incident was preventable.”

“I hear frequently that weather is an act of G-d and there is nothing they can do about mitigating the hazards associated with it,” Avery said in a follow-up interview.

That is an untrue statement. Event organizers and venue operators have a responsibility to identify the threats and mitigate the known and foreseeable risks associated with the hazards,” he added.

Festival Deaths Despite Severe Weather Warnings

In 2015, severe weather led to more event tragedies.

On Aug. 2, a 35-year-old man was killed when a steel tent pole collapsed under the pressure of high winds and struck him during Prairie Fest, an annual event hosted by the city of Wood Dale, Illinois, according to an article in Business Insurance.

The next day, high winds knocked down a large tent in Lancaster, New Hampshire, at a circus held by Walker Brothers International Circus, killing a 41-year-old man and his 8-year-old daughter.

An aggravating factor in both cases, the article stated, is that severe weather warnings had already been issued but neither tent was evacuated, according to litigation and reports.

Safety Imperative

The Indiana tragedy prompted the entertainment industry to write new safety guidelines that cover fire safety, crowd control and weather issues. The publication, The Event Safety Guide, is an Americanized version of the Purple Guide, the industry standard in the U.K. for health, safety and welfare at music and other events.

“I think the whole industry had a bit of a wake-up call,” after the deaths, Indiana’s former Assistant Labor Commissioner Jeff Carter, now a safety consultant, said in an interview with WTHR Indianapolis. “The shows got more sophisticated, and maybe the safety didn’t quite keep up with it.”

The guide is published by the Event Safety Alliance, a nonprofit with the mission of promoting life safety first throughout all phases of event production and execution.

Life safety is built on three pillars, according to the alliance:

  • What is necessary to stay safe
  • How can we inspire others to be safe
  • Why everyone is responsible for life safety
Severe Weather Planning Resources for Public Events

Expert Tips for Cities

Avery offers severe weather guidance that local government officials can share with event organizers planning and running outdoor events as part of their coordination with city staff and services. He shared the following tips by email.

Assess potential threats: Event organizers and venue operators must assess the threats most likely to occur at their locale. Understanding the vulnerabilities and avoiding known and foreseeable hazards is key to a successful plan.

Understand the venue and the capabilities: During a weather event, it is fundamental to the success of plan to understand the capabilities of venue and the structures available for sheltering in place. If permanent structures are available, have the capacity to safely house the number of participants/patrons attending event per the Fire Marshal’s Office? Or, is a contingency plan in place to evacuate in a timely fashion? What is the evacuation order, to leave the property, to shelter in vehicles?

Monitor: Event organizers and venue operators must continuously monitor the weather. This is another fundamental aspect of a successful plan. There is no excuse not to monitor the weather during an event. Designating a person or group of people to monitor the weather using on-property weather radar, apps, or relying on monitoring services is imperative to the success of your event in order to identify potential/real threats and proactively communicate the threat and mitigate its impact to people, property and equipment.

Develop a plan: Event organizers and venue operators must have a plan. Key concepts that should be addressed:

  • What distance does a lightning strike require the closure or evacuation of my event or specific services?
  • At what wind speed should temporary structures be evacuated?
  • How many hours out do I begin prep for a hurricane?

Have a checklist: Who is ultimately responsible for the plan, implementing the plan and enforcing the plan? Have you tested your plan? How often is your staff being trained on it? Your plans must not be up for interpretation; a clear unambiguous set of requirements must be developed and followed without hesitation.

Communicate: Within your plan, what and when do you communicate to staff, vendors and patrons, the weather situation and what is required of them prior to, during and after any weather events. Messaging must be clear and requirements to comply must be established. How will you communicate it (announcements over a PA, sirens, signage, trained staff)? Have you tested your equipment? How often do you test your equipment?

City of Edmonton Preparedness Resources

Edmonton, Canada, encourages special event contingency planning through its Office of Emergency Preparedness and provides a guide to creating an Emergency Action Plan (EAP) as a tool for producers.

An EAP, according to Edmonton:

  • Assists in identifying what measures need to be put in place for the protection and well-being of the public and participants who will be attending the event
  • Reduces the risk of loss of life and property damage resulting from an emergency
  • Identifies individual/groups/organizations roles and responsibilities

Additionally, the city has an Event Planning Checklist and the Government of Alberta published a Mass Gathering Guidebook (review and download below) in 2013.

University Event Safety Manual

The University of South Florida (USF) in Tampa is proactive when it comes to severe-weather contingency planning and requires organizers to adhere to its Event Safety Manual for outdoor events on campus.

Severe weather may present hazards and risks that must be considered during the planning phase of an outdoor event. To prepare, event organizers must consider potential weather conditions and the plan of action that will be taken during such occurrences. Severe weather may include thunderstorms, lightning and/or tornados. During the event, event organizers must monitor weather conditions.”

The comprehensive manual also touches on event process, food safety, security and first aid, fireworks, tents and/or inflatables, insurance and alcohol, all in an effort to “protect the interests of the university and its population.”

Annual Events’ Industry Severe Weather Summit

The Event Safety Alliance met for its annual Severe Weather Summit in March at the National Weather Center’s Storm Prediction Center in Norman, Oklahoma. According to the alliance, the summit is “designed to aid event and venue professionals of all types in preparing for and responding to dangerous weather conditions.”

Experts from NOAA and the National Weather Service explored topics such as:

  • Severe weather phenomena that can threaten all types of events and facilities
  • Why playing “amateur meteorologist” can be dangerous
  • Public and private-sector resources that can assist in weather preparedness
  • Technologies that can provide advanced warning of threatening weather
  • How to develop a relevant and actionable severe weather plan

Learn about future training opportunities on EventSafetyAlliance.org.

Review and download the Mass Gathering Guidebook developed by the Alberta Emergency Management Agency:

2013 Mass Gathering Guidebook-final(1) by Ed Praetorian on Scribd

Learn more about event public event risks and festival safety and security in our previous coverage:

Festival Security: Developing Risk Management Plans for Public Events

The 7 Critical Steps of Planning Music Festivals

About the author

Larry Claflin, Jr.

Larry Claflin, Jr.

Columnist Larry Claflin, Jr., is a freelance writer based in New England and co-founder and former executive director of the non-profit Salem Jazz and Soul Festival. He is fascinated with the mechanics of city government and cultural development in cities.