Íse Murphy

To prevent disaster, now is the time to study crowd safety

If I am over a decade into my career and facing the challenge of an industry that has totally collapsed, then I can share an understanding of what those who are only preparing to enter the industry could be feeling. Event Management has only become a subject of study within the last few decades (Backman, 2018) and so as an academic discipline, it is still in its infancy. Today those who have joined event management courses may be considering why they did, if the industry has buckled under the pandemic. Why spend more time and finances on learning more about this fickle and fantastic industry? Recently I completed an MSc in Crowd Safety, culminating three years of study and assessment in a dissertation on the impact of legislation on crowd safety at events, and I believe right now is truly the best time to be studying crowd safety and the events industry.

Before 2020

Before the pandemic, events were accelerating exponentially, with organised mass gatherings becoming more frequent than ever (Mussaid et al, 2011). However the rate of competent, qualified professionals in charge of organising was not reflected in this. The fact that the law does not require those who are responsible for the safety of thousands of people to hold a licence is an example of an exploded industry with legislation trailing behind. Furthermore, the speed at which events were happening tended to entice those studying or wanting to study, to work instead.

Now that there has been an abrupt pause to our entire industry, we are forced to look at what we can do in this down time to service the metaphorical engine and identify areas for improvement. That is why now is the best time to learn about crowd safety at events.

After studying crowd disasters over the last decade (2010 to 2019), the entertainment industry ranked the highest in crowd disasters, compared to other reasons for mass gatherings; religious events, transport, political events, schools and recruitment drives. Although our industry ranked highest in the last ten years, we can now work to change that for the next ten years. Right now we have an opportunity to change this statistic and perhaps become world-leading in demonstrating best crowd safety practices in the world.

We can learn from others

After learning Klein’s (1999) Recognition Primed Decision Model (RPDM), developed from studying firefighters, was that not only do we learn from our own experience, we also learn from other’s experiences and these can become incorporated into our “gut response” when faced with a situation or crisis within our area of expertise.

Taking this into the context of event planning, we can study historic disasters, read up every detail we can find to understand what causes and conditions came together for disaster to occur. We can learn what was the tipping point for every tragedy and build up our internal reserve of experience by proxy, incorporating these lessons to our own planning strategies.

Predictable is preventable“GORDON GRAHAM

For instance, if we study the Love Parade disaster in 2010, we can learn that not only is joint ingress and egress space high risk and should alert the concerns of the organisers, but that predicted arrival and departure data brings our attention to where and when risk to crowd safety arises and how we can mitigate it with effective planning. Furthermore, we can deduce that joint agency relationship and support is crucial for a successful event. The below graph depicts the arrival and departure data including the capacity of the site (Helbing and Mukerji, 2012). The red line indicates where crowd flow exceeds site capacity which so happens to be around the time the disaster occurred.

Love Parade

Using RAMP Analysis to help identify risk on Love Parade arrival profile

Causes of crowd disasters

Crowd disasters are never the result of one issue, moreover they are the result of a build up of small issues, incubating over time that eventually reach a tipping point. This “incubation period” (Turner, 1978) whereby a chain of events develop and accumulate unnoticed, possibly long before a disaster happens, are the warning signs that we need to look out for. Identifying the reasons why disasters happen helps to understand if the disaster was foreseeable.

Often times an immediate cause is blamed for the reason the disaster occurred. However, if we take another look into causality, we can separate them to proximate and distal causes. The HSE (2004) classes causality into the following categories:

Historically, it was assumed that crowd “mass panic” was to blame as the cause of the disaster (Drury and Stott, 2011); however when facts are analysed, the proximate cause of the disaster is usually owed to errors in space design and management (Fruin, 1993; Still et al, 2020). Proximate, rather than distal, cause usually becomes the subject of inquiry (Elliott and McGuinness, 2002) removing opportunity to identify and resolve the root cause of the disaster.

Turner (1994) identified man-made disasters as “socio-technical” events; whereby in order for a system to work successfully, both the social and technical elements need to be focused on and optimised (Cherns, 1987). Using this model, both Turner (1994) and Challenger and Clegg (2011) recognised the majority of disasters are caused by social, managerial or administrative errors.

If we broaden disaster research outside of the scope of crowds, the distal cause appears to remain the same. For example, the cause of the Piper Alpha Disaster in 1988 that killed 165 people, was attributed to “an accumulation of management errors” (Paté-Cornell, 1992). The cause of the Chernobyl disaster was deemed to be due to “poor safety culture” within the organisation (Pidgeon, 1997), and the cause of the Aberfan Disaster in 1966 was lack of action taken by those in responsible positions with knowledge of relevant factors (Couto, 1989).

Safety is not an intellectual exercise. It’s not something to keep safety departments in work or a reason to go to conference or hear presentations. Safety is truly a matter of life and death. The sum and quality of our individual contributions to the management of safety determines whether the colleagues we work with live or die.


Lead the industry

If we take these learnings and apply them to our own study, we can identify the trigger points that caused a disaster in order to prevent one happening again. If we take a deeper look into organisational culture and decision making, we may begin to find snippets of information that alert us to this incubation period. Using models such as Still’s (2014) DIM-ICE (Design, Information, Management – Ingress, Circulation, Egress), we can dissect the event timeline to understand what distal and proximate causes and conditions came together for disaster to occur.

If we become aware of the importance of a holding healthy attitude towards safety, we can understand that this is truly the difference between disaster and everyone getting home safely. This helps us feel confident in challenging questionable practices or “this is how we’ve always done it” attitudes. The more of us that develop this critical awareness, the industry will have no choice but to change under the weight of professionals who want to learn, grow and do their best to keep crowds safe.

The more we can learn from history, the better equipped we are at creating a safer future. The industry is in our hands and its up to us to design and deliver events that keep our invited crowds safe. Together we can develop the events industry into a world-leading sector in crowd safety, inverting the above graph by the end of 2029.

So my question to you is: How will you help shape the next decade?


Backman, K. F. (2018) “Event management research: The focus today and in the future.” Tourism Management Perspectives, 25 pp. 169–171.

Challenger, R. and Clegg, C. W. (2011) ‘Crowd disasters: a socio-technical systems perspective’. Contemporary Social Science. 2nd ed., 6(3) pp. 343–360.

Cherns, A. (1987) “Principles of Sociotechnical Design Revisited.” Human Relations, 40(3) pp. 153–162.

Couto, R. A. (1989) “Economics, Experts, and Risk: Lessons from the Catastrophe at Aberfan.” Political Psychology. (International Society of Political Psychology), 10(2) pp. 309–324.

Drury, J. and Stott, C. (2011) “Contextualising the crowd in contemporary social science.” Contemporary Social Science, 6(3) pp. 275–288.

Elliott, D. and McGuinness, M. (2002) “Public Inquiry: Panacea or Placebo?” Journal of Contingencies and Crisis Management, 10(1) pp. 14–25.

Fruin, J. J. (1993) “The Causes and Prevention of Crowd Disasters.” Engineering for Crowd Safety. (Elsevier), pp. 99–108.

Helbing, D. and Mukerji, P. (2012) ‘Crowd disasters as systemic failures: analysis of the Love Parade disaster’. EPJ Data Science, 1(1) pp. 1–40.

Health and Safety Executive (HSE) (2004) Investigating Accidents and Incidents. Liverpool: HSE Books, pp. 1–88.

Klein, G. A. (1999) Sources of Power. 20th Anniversary Edition, London: MIT Press.

Moussaid, M., Helbing, D. and Theraulaz, G. (2011) ‘How simple rules determine pedestrian behavior and crowd disasters’. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 108(17) pp. 6884–6888.

Paté-Cornell, M. E. (1992) “Learning from the Piper Alpha Accident: A Postmortem Analysis of Technical and Organizational Factors.” Risk Analysis, 13(2) pp. 215–232.

Pidgeon, N. (1997) ‘The Limits to Safety? Culture, Politics, Learning and Man-Made Disasters’. Journal of Contingencies and Crisis Management, 5, March, pp. 1–14.

Still, G.K. (2014) Introduction to Crowd Science, London: CRC Press.

Still, K., Papalexi, M., Fan, Y. and Bamford, D. (2020) “Place crowd safety, crowd science? Case studies and application.” Journal of Place Management and Development.

Turner, B.A. (1978), Man-Made Disaster. London: Wykeham Science Press.

Turner, B. A. (1994) ‘Causes of Disaster: Sloppy Management’. British Journal of Management, 5, July, pp. 215–219.

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