Sunday, August 18, 2013

Sporting venue crises

While drugs in sport represent an escalating crisis for many sporting bodies, sporting venues also have a need for crisis management planning.  Thousands of people gathered in arenas, stadiums or theatres can be a crisis waiting to happen.  The ineffective evacuation management of these people in an emergency can turn the reputation of a sport or theatrical production into a horrific, memorable event that affects gate sales for many years to come.   

Emergency planning at the tactical level needs to be supported by strategic crisis management that provides an orderly and efficient planning process to identify, quantify, reduce and control significant high-level threats to protect the organisation and its future.

The British tragedy at Hillsborough was a terrible tragedy involving thousands of people in a mass of confusion and terror that was being televised live as it happened.  Five thousand Liverpool football fans watching a semi-final at the Hillsborough stadium were, because of over-crowding, put into a position of being unable to get through turnstiles.  The crowds were re-directed into a tunnel which forced them to an area that was virtually caged off.  Emergency gates were not open and crowds were pushed up against wire caging.  Many people were killed and injured and the media turned the tragedy into an even greater tragedy by printing dreadful pictures of victims’ suffering in the crush.   Rumour and innuendo related to the drunken state of the fans and the difficulty the police had to face in dealing with them.   In fact, the crowd was a victim of lack of planning and bureaucratic bungling.

The South Yorkshire Police did have a plan for re-routing the crowds, but the plan, rather than protecting people, was very much aimed at protecting the football ground from being invaded by people.  There was not a plan it seems for a major crisis of panic and chaos.      

In another sporting incident in Australia, a peaceful, annual international sailing classic, turned into one of the world’s most serious rescue operations in yachting history.  The Sydney to Hobart Yacht Race is held annually after Christmas.   

The yachts sailed out of picturesque Sydney Harbour on a sunny, beautiful day, but as they made their way along the East Coast of Australia, a shocking storm hit the 115 boats.  Winds of 80 knots whipped up huge waves. The yacht race became a race for survival as a huge rescue operation was mounted by the Australian Maritime Safety Authority.   

Certainly plans were in place to assist the yacht race in rescue should some of the boats get into trouble, but no in-depth plans were in place to deal with mass havoc caused by wild seas, snapping masts and the tossing of many of the crews into the sea.    Thirty fixed wing aircraft and five Navy and Air Force aircraft, together with police and rescue helicopters, were joined by Australian Navy warships.    Six people were killed and crews were injured.  

The world watched through CNN and BBC television as the massive rescue took place.  In one particular piece of television coverage, a live camera on one of the yachts showed the intensity of the waves smashing on to the deck as the mast was snapped and one of the yacht’s personnel was swept over the side.              

The emergency plan for this race was without doubt responsible for saving many lives, but the investigation that followed asked the question of whether the race should have been abandoned earlier when it was known that the weather was going to develop to a critical situation. 

 Questions about the experience of the crews and the capability of individual crew members for dealing with the intensity of severe weather conditions were reviewed by coronial and yachting officials.  There was long legal discussion about whether the yacht race should have been cancelled.

Clearly the yacht race today has greatly improved plans for managing the worst case scenario, obviously providing contingency plans for response to threats that could harm people and the future of this sport.