Over the next 24 hours, more than a million people are expected to descend on Philadelphia for the arrival of Pope Francis. The tragic events earlier today in Mina, Saudi Arabia, provide a stark reminder of the risks associated with large crowds. As the Pope moves from Washington, DC to Central Park, the UN and Madison Square Garden in New York City, the largest crowds are expected in Philadelphia this weekend. With estimates ranging from 1.5 to 2 million plus, this is reportedly the largest crowd event in Philadelphia’s history. Whether you are a visitor, a resident or a first responder working at this event, it is important to understand and prepare for the potential hazards involved in dense crowd conditions.
Stampedes at the Hajj
The Hajj is the annual Islamic pilgrimage to Mecca, and a mandatory religious duty for every able-bodied adult Muslim that must be carried out at least once in their lifetime.
In the past decades more than 2,500 people have died in stampedes at the Hajj, with the single most deadly incident occurring in 1990 when 1,426 were killed by a surging crowd. Sadly, today’s stampede will add almost another 700 victims to these grim statistics.
Stampedes at the Hajj are a powerful reminder that even at peaceful and joyous religious events, the psychological and physical forces involved in dense crowds can prove deadly.
Three Key Concepts
It is critical that emergency management leaders, first responders and participants in large crowd events be knowledgeable about the risks and countermeasures for ensuring safety, and in worse case scenarios, survival. Key concepts in planning and managing these risks include:
One: Disasters Can Create Crowds
All types of disasters, natural, technological and those of human intention, can result in large crowds competing for what may be perceived as the last opportunities to flee or to access what is left of critical resources, such as food, water or shelter. While panic is not a feature in every disaster, such events often drive large crowds toward shelters or evacuate routes. Gatherings of large numbers of people in a heightened emotional state can provide the ingredients for a crowd disaster.
Two: Crowds Can Create Disasters
Unfortunately there are countless examples of this concept, but one incident in particular illustrates this risk all too well. In August 2015, a large religious procession passing through Baghdad turned deadly when the vast crowds of Shiite pilgrims were sent into panic by rumors of a suicide bomber in their midst. One person, thinking that he saw wires hanging from another’s back pack yelled out that there was a bomber on the bridge. 965 Iraqis were crushed to death or drowned in the ensuing stampede. There was in fact, no bomber. This was a mass casualty event caused entirely by human behavior and the perception of limited opportunity for escape; a behavioral response referred to as an “escape mob.”
Three: Not All Crowds are Violent, But All Crowds are Potentially Dangerous
The dangers inherent to large, dense crowds arise from the interaction of specific psychological and physical forces. Intense crowd pressures, exacerbated by anxiety, make it difficult to breathe. The heat and thermal insulation of surrounding bodies cause some to be weakened and faint. It is important to recognize that the majority of crowd-related injuries and deaths are not the result of violence or aggression in crowds, but rather “crowd crush,” which in technical terms in known as “compressional asphyxiation.”
Stampeding, trampling and suffocating with no avenue of escape is the number one cause of multiple injuries and death by human hands in group settings. People need at least 1 square yard of space around them to control their movements and freely breathe.
As crowds become denser, the compression increases exponentially. The compounded force of just five people crushing in can reach nearly 800 pounds of pressure and kill a person. Humans can lose consciousness after being compressed for just 30 seconds; they can be brain dead within six minutes. Most people who die in dense crowds die standing up; they die from crowd crush.
Safety and Survival in Dense Crowd Conditions: What Everyone Should Know
Regardless if you are attending a large religious, sporting, entertainment or shopping event as a spectator or as part of the event safety and security apparatus as a law enforcement officer, EMT or other first responder, there are some basic crowd safety and survival concepts and techniques that are universal. These include:
- Avoid loose wearing clothing and accessories that may prove dangerous, such as long jewelry or neck ties that can become tangled or pulled
- Wear comfortable lace up shoes or boots, with little or no heel; any type of slip on shoe can easily come off when others in a crowd step on the back of your shoes. Double tie laces to avoid tripping. Don’t wear open toe shoes or sandals in a crowd
- Carry a cell phone, ID and small flashlight, even during daylight hours
- Try to stay outside of the crowd; walk around crowds, not through them. The risk of injury increases as soon as you go into the crowd
- Don’t stand near or against immovable objects, such as walls, doors or barricades, which would limit your options for escape or increase the risk of being crushed
- Stand and walk with your hands on hips, elbows out to the sides to keep space between you and others. People generally need about one square yard around them to safely move and breathe
- If you are caught up in the middle of a moving crowd, DON’T STAND STILL OR SIT DOWN! Keep moving in the direction of the crowd
- If you have dropped an item, unless it is critical, don’t try to pick it up. Bending or getting your fingers stepped on or trapped will increase your risk of being pushed to the ground
- If you are being pulled or pushed along by a moving crowd, don’t try to push against the flow or simply let the crowd take you
- Like breaking free from a rip tide in the ocean, move diagonally across the crowd, not with it and not against it. The force will begin to weaken as you reach the perimeter of the crowd and you will be better able to break free
- If you fall or are pushed down, try to get back to your feet as quickly as possible; If someone is willing and able, extend an arm and ask for help getting back to your feet as quickly as possible
- If you can’t get up, keep moving! Crawl in the direction of the crowd until you can get back up
- If you cannot get up at all or even crawl, curl up in a ball to create an air pocket and cover your head. Keep your back facing up, protecting your head and face with your hands and arms
- Crowds tend to surge and pulse. Wait for a lull in the pressure or flow to try to get back to your feet as soon as you can
Have a Plan
A crowd of a million or more people is noisy even when they are being quiet. When a crowd roars or cheers in excitement, it can be impossible to communicate effectively even with those standing right next to you. It is important therefore to have any necessary discussions about how you will communicate with friends, family and teammates and what you will do in an emergency, well before you go into the crowd. At the minimum:
- Find site maps online prior to traveling to the event site and pick up extra copies if there are available as you arrive.
- Be familiar with the location of medical stations, Family Reunification Centers and exits.
- Have a redundant communications plan. It is likely that cellphone batteries will run down over the course of a long day, and that local cellular circuits may be overloaded making it difficult to get calls through. In fact, it may even be difficult to hear calls received during times when the crowd is noisy. Consider text and other options if you primary means of communication is not working.
- Discuss plans for reunification if you become separated from your group or team. Specifically where you will go and how long you should wait there or search for each other, and what you should do next if you are not able to locate each other.
Pack light but bring what you need for yourself. Although you will not want to carry too much on the long hikes into and out of a crowd event, be sure to bring critical items that would not otherwise be available at medical or support tents. These items may include:
- Spare contact lenses and a small bottle of solution, or spare eyeglasses if they become lost or damaged in a crowd. Large crowds create dust which can create problem for those wearing contacts. If crowd control agents such as tear gas are necessary, they are especially uncomfortable for those wearing contacts
- Any necessary prescription or over-the-counter medications you depend on
- A few Band Aids for blisters or minor cuts or scratches
- Sunscreen, sunglasses and a ball cap are helpful on hot and sunny days
- A compact, lightweight poncho for rain
- Water, energy bars and other small snacks
- A separate small supply of cash placed in a different pocket than where you keep your wallet or purse. Large crowd events create opportunities for pickpockets, and just the pressure and movement of dense crowds can force a wallet from your pocket
- Consider a spare battery or charger for your cellphone, and of course any wires that may be necessary to recharge your phone
Be Safe, Have Fun!
Although the stampede on Hajj today is a powerful demonstration of the concept that even peaceful crowds can be dangerous, it is important to remember that most crowd events do not result in injury and death. A ball game, a concert, and certainly the arrival of a popular religious figure, can be an exciting and exhilarating once-in-a-lifetime event. Understanding the risks and preparing accordingly can help you enjoy the celebration safely and confidently.
To all who are attending the Papal visits, please have a joyous, holy and safe experience!