Emergency Preparedness and Response

Houston Concert Tragedy Casts Crowd Management into the Spotlight

Update 11/15/21: The death toll has risen to 10 after a college student and 9-year-old boy critically injured at the event later died.

Over the weekend, tragedy unfolded at NRG Park in Houston when eight young concert goers, between the ages of 14 and 27, were killed when reported crowd surges occurred during the Astroworld festival, which attracted an estimated 50,000 attendees.

In addition to the loss of young lives, more than 300 attendees sought assistance at an onsite medical tent. News reports indicate that 25 were transported to the hospital and 13 remain hospitalized. The mass casualty event, considered to be one of the deadliest concerts in U.S. history, is now being criminally investigated to determine what prompted pandemonium as eight-time Grammy-nominated rapper Travis Scott, a Houston native, took to the stage.

The level of chaos that ensued on Friday night may seem rare, but we need only look back to April 30 of this year when a celebration turned into tragedy as 45 people were killed and more than 150 were injured at a religious festival in Israel that attracted nearly 100,000 people. On the heels of that event, NFPA Building and Life Safety Tech Lead Kristin Bigda wrote a blog about crowd management safety. That piece serves as a great resource today as people search for answers in Houston and around the world. Bigda summarizes some of the code requirements from NFPA 101, Life Safety Code that are unique to assembly occupancies with large crowds. In part, Bigda explains:

  • Occupant Load is determined by utilizing factors that are based on how the space is used or is determined by using the maximum probable population of the space under consideration, whichever is greater. In areas of assembly occupancies more than 10,000 ft2 (930 m2), the occupant load cannot exceed a density of one person in every 7ft2 (0.65 m2). This occupant load limit exists to avoid overcrowding.
  • Life Safety Evaluations (LSE) are required where the occupant load of an assembly occupancy exceeds 6,000. The LSE recognizes that fixed protection and suppression systems alone do not ensure safe egress where large numbers of people are present. Expected crowd behavior and techniques to manage any behavioral problems are also considered. The evaluation must include an assessment of all the following conditions and related appropriate safety measures:
    • Nature of the events and the participants and attendees
    • Access and egress movement, including crowd density problems
    • Medical emergencies
    • Fire hazards
    • Permanent and temporary structural systems
    • Severe weather conditions
    • Earthquakes
    • Civil or other disturbances
    • Hazardous materials incidents within and near the facility
    • Relationships among facility management, event participants, emergency response agencies, and others having a role in the events accommodated in the facility
  • Main Entrances/Exits are required in every assembly occupancy, new or existing, to accommodate for occupants that are likely to egress the facility via the same door(s)/opening they used to enter. In some types of new assembly occupancies, the main entrance/exit must accommodate up to two-thirds of the total egress capacity, while in other assembly occupancies it can account for 50%. In assembly occupancies where there is no well-defined main entrance/exit, exits are permitted to be distributed around the perimeter of the building, provided that the total exit width is not less than 100% of the width needed to accommodate the permitted occupant load.
  • Auditorium and Arena Floors need to be considered in new assembly occupancies where the floor area of auditoriums and arenas is used for assembly occupancy activities/events. Not less than 50% of the occupant load can have means of egress provided without passing through adjacent fixed seating areas.
  • Emergency Action Plans (EAP) must be provided in assembly occupancies and are a critical component of ensuring life safety in buildings. Plans must include a minimum of 18 different considerations including:
    • Building details
    • Designated building staff responsible for emergency duties
    • Identification of events that are considered life safety hazards and the specific procedures for each type of emergency
    • Staff training
    • Documentations
    • Inspection, testing, and maintenance of building facilities that provide for the safety of occupants
    • Conducting drills
    • Evacuation procedures
  • Crowd Managers are required for assembly occupancies. Where the occupant load exceeds 250, additional trained crowd managers or crowd manager supervisors are to be provided at a ratio of one crowd manager or crowd manager supervisor for every 250 occupants in most facilities.

Bigda also penned an In Compliance column for NFPA Journal this fall, reinforcing the fact that when safety protocols and crowd management features are neglected, it can have a drastic impact on the efficiency of egress response during large events like the one in Houston.

In that same issue, NFPA Journal also ran an Op-ed called In My Tribe by Steve Adelman, principal author of the authoritative crowd-management standard in the United States (ANSI ES1.9-2020) and vice president of the Event Safety Alliance, an industry group that was established after seven people were killed at the Indiana State Fair in 2011. Adelman writes, “In the context of events where participants are passionately engaged, a risk identity of situational invulnerability causes them to either downplay of not even perceive otherwise apparent hazards.”

While it is too early to know definitively what transpired in Houston, the incident reminds us just how important it is for citizens to have a keen level of situational awareness and for venue security and safety personnel to understand and apply the guidance found within NFPA 101.

Cathy Longley is Communications Manager for the National Fire Protection Association. This article has been reposted with permission from the organization. The original is available at the NFPA site here.