Emergency Planning for Special Events

From an emergency manager’s point of view, a special event can be defined, in general, as a non-routine activity within a community – or on a campus or other large facility – where a large number of people might gather for a specific purpose.  A special event also usually represents a physical, and fiscal, challenge to community resources, often requires the issuance of special permits, and/or mandates specific planning – with particular emphasis on escalated preparedness and risk-mitigation capabilities.

To prepare for such events, therefore, emergency managers must first consider the scope and nature of the event, the numerous and varied risks to spectators and participants, including area residents, who might be involved, the potential impact on the surrounding community, and the various forms of emergency-services support likely to be required.  

Following is a brief summary, in the areas indicated, of some but by no means all of the major concerns that must be dealt with by emergency managers, working in close coordination, it should be emphasized, with event organizers:

  • Insurance: Liability insurance is often mandatory and must be provided to a risk-management office in advance of the event. Final approval often is given only after the insurance is in place.
  • Costs: There is usually no charge to apply to a city, county, or campus for the use of sidewalks. If an event requires temporary parking, however, and/or police assistance, a deposit (usually based on rough calculations as well as previous experience) is often required in advance of the event. In such cases, all costs associated with an event are charged against the deposit. If the actual charges are lower than the estimate, the remaining funds will be returned to the organizer. Agreement also should be reached in advance, though, on the additional payment(s) needed if/when costs exceed the estimate – if the event runs late, for example, if equipment is lost or stolen, or if safety concerns develop that require the use of additional equipment or personnel.
  • Permits: “Standard” permits are rarely issued for special events. Depending on the nature of the event, however, special permits may be required from other departments – the fire department, for example, for events in which fireworks are involved, or the health department when emergency medical services may be needed.
  • Notification: The event organizer is responsible for providing advance notification to all residents and merchants likely to be affected by the special event. One of the most commonly used methods of notification is the distribution of a flyer or information leaflet to businesses and residences along the route of a parade. The flyer should include specific and detailed information about the date, time, location, and duration of the event. In addition, the possibility of temporary traffic disruptions should be noted, in as specific detail as possible. The organizers of larger events may be required to notify the public by advertising in local newspapers. Increasingly, special events sponsor their own websites, as well as Facebook and Twitter accounts, which residents and merchants can access to stay current on the status of the event.
  • Pre-Checking of Location/Route: The organizer should carry out a detailed “double check” in the area of the event at least one week prior to the event. The advance preparations should include driving or walking through the area, or parade route, to identify any road defects or street construction projects that might cause problems. A final site check should be carried out just before the start of the event to confirm that the route or location is safe.
  • Event Management:  An organizer must have the ability, and authority, to shut down the event in case of an emergency. Larger events, including long parade routes, require that a communications network (radio or cell phones) and medical stations must be provided for participants. If a city, community, campus, or police emergency develops, the officers assigned to the event may be required to deploy abruptly. In addition, although a street may be officially closed during the special event, emergency vehicles and personnel must be given priority access at all times.
  • Marshals/Ambassadors: Police are usually the only ones authorized to control traffic in most jurisdictions. Volunteer event marshals, however, may be permitted to assist the police – along the route of a parade, for example, to check for stragglers and/or advise the police that the road is clear of participants or that someone needs special attention.

The Obama Inauguration & a GWU Template

The 2009 U.S. Presidential Inauguration, the largest and in many respects most complex special event in the history of the nation’s capital, presented federal, state, regional, and local governments – as well as the numerous private and nonprofit agencies and organizations also involved – a number of unique and unusually difficult challenges. According to the official After-Action Report for the inauguration, one of the major strengths of the special-event plan developed for the inauguration, and approved by all levels of government participating, was the access provided to the District of Columbia’s WebEOC boards, which gave emergency managers and event organizers continuing and detailed real-time situational awareness of the numerous operations and activities going on at any given time.

Nonetheless, some of the agencies and individuals participating encountered difficulties in accessing and/or using the boards during the inauguration; a small number, in fact, were unaware that they could gain access. To prevent similar difficulties during future inaugurations – and/or other “world-” events – additional training and exercises were recommended in the After-Action Report to build on the strengths of achieving a common operating picture through technology, including situation reports, or other vital information. Although each jurisdiction had exercised most of its activities, there was general agreement that combined regional exercises involving the WebEOC would be helpful for the future.

The management of traffic also was a major challenge last year, and getting correct information out quickly enough to be actionable was difficult. To remedy those problems, and others, another future and much more complete after-action review also was recommended. The ability to provide “mass care” – i.e., keeping people warm, providing routine medical services (absolutely necessary to be prepared for a mass-casualty event), and the building of a massive sheltering capacity in preparation for a worst-case scenario – all are on the list of areas in need of improvement.

In short, the ability to be prepared for actual 2009 requirements received a high grade, but the planning and preparation for other and sometimes greater potential needs scored lower on the scale. The need for more and larger regional shelters is expected to receive greater emphasis in future planning sessions. Family reunification plans and protocols also were not as strong last year as had been hoped. No harm was done this time around, but an improved regional plan for the reunification of families – anxious parents and lost children are the best and most obvious example – is recommended for future special events of the same magnitude.

Fortunately, George Washington University (GWU), in easy walking distance from the White House, has developed a best-practice special-events model for colleges and universities, which also sponsor thousands of special events each year. The questionnaire below is based in large part on the GWU best-practice template and covers most if not quite all of the principal considerations emergency planners must factor into their short- and long-range plans in advance of almost any type of special event anywhere in the country.

The Multipurpose Special Event Template (Based on the GWU campus-specific model)

1. Organization  (Yes/No Comments)

  • Is the plan organized and easy to understand, implement, and apply – i.e., does it use the headings needed, are they listed in logical sequence, and are they written in plain language?
  • Does the plan adequately identify the specific special event (dates, physical locations involved, and number of people) it was written to protect?
  • Does it include a statement of the scope of the event and the involvement of both public and private agencies?
  • Does it include information on the principal planning body (committee, agency, department, etc.), including emergency-contact information? (To alleviate privacy concerns, personal information should be removed before online posting.)
  • Does it include, at a minimum, the most important planning factors (responsibilities, communication, preparation, response, recovery, and implementation) included in this checklist?
  • Does the plan include the date(s) of revision(s)? Is it consistent with the most important priority of protecting people, property, and other vital interests?

2. Responsibilities (Yes/No Comments)

  • Does the plan specifically identify, by name and/or official position, the person(s) possessing the authority to dismiss or redirect the event? 
  • Does it also specify who is responsible for ensuring that those covered by the plan are aware of and understand the plan?
  • Does it also identify the individual(s) responsible for creating and maintaining the organizing body’s emergency contact list?

3. Communications & Resources (Yes/No Comments)

  • Does the plan include a chain of command for incident communications?
  • Does it include a process by which the planning body can post incident-related information for future use?
  • Does the plan include a full list of emergency phone numbers that might be needed and other important contact information?

4. Preparation & Planning (Yes/No Comments)

  • Does the plan identify potential risks to spectators and participants – specifically related to such factors as crowds, staffing, food and shelter, parking, transportation, medical facilities, weather conditions, community impact, and/or external disruptions? 
  • Does it address the potential need for major emergency (medical, fire, or police) response capabilities?    
  • Have shelter-in-place procedures been established and included?
  • Have emergency evacuation plans, including ingress and egress routes, been established and included?
  • Does the plan cover the individual responsibilities related to the care and safety of the physically challenged, disabled, or any person with special needs?

5. Response Capabilities (Yes/No Comments)

  • Does the plan provide detailed guidelines for evacuation (notification of need to evacuate, exit routes from location, what to bring)?
  • Does the plan provide guidance on responses to specific incidents (e.g., fire, suspicious packages, bomb threats, etc.)?
  • If hazardous materials or potentially harmful special equipment will be used at the event, does the plan account for this possibility?
  • Does the plan include notification and reporting procedures for the communication of information to family members of those – active participants in the event, as well as spectators — who may be missing or injured?

6. Alternatives & Redundancies (Yes/No Comments)

  • Does the plan comprehensively address the method, process, and timing of a decision for relocating the event to an alternate venue?
  • Does it identify the location of an appropriate alternate and, if possible, tertiary back-up site?
  • Has a process been established for moving the event or some parts of it to other times or venues?
  • Has transportation been arranged for relocation of the event (if necessary)?
  • Have cancellation and/or postponement procedures been developed – and, if so, are they now in place?
  • Is there a tested method in place for giving information or directions to attendees regarding emergent changes?

7. Implementation (Yes/No Comments)

  • Does the plan include a process for the dissemination/implementation of decisions made at stakeholder meetings, and is such information incorporated into the information packets provided for all participants?
  • Does the plan incorporate an annual schedule and system for the review and updating of guidelines for similar events scheduled on a recurring basis?
Kay Goss
Kay C. Goss

Kay Goss has been the president of World Disaster Management since 2012. She is the former senior assistant to two state governors, coordinating fire service, emergency management, emergency medical services, public safety, and law enforcement for 12 years. She then served as the Associate Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) Director for National Preparedness, Training, Higher Education, Exercises, and International Partnerships (presidential appointee, U.S. Senate confirmed unanimously). She was a private sector government contractor for 12 years at the Texas firm Electronic Data Systems as a senior emergency manager and homeland security advisor and SRA International’s director of emergency management services. She is a senior fellow at the National Academy for Public Administration and serves as a nonprofit leader on the Board of Advisors for DRONERESPONDERS International and for the Institute for Diversity and Inclusion in Emergency Management. She has also been a graduate professor of Emergency Management at the University of Nevada at Las Vegas for 16 years, İstanbul Technical University for 12 years, the MPA Programs Metropolitan College of New York for five years, and George Mason University. She has been a Certified Emergency Manager (CEM) for 25 years and a Featured International Association of Emergency Managers (IAEM) CEM Mentor for five years, and chair of the Training and Education Committee for six years, 2004-2010.



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