Crisis Management for Stadiums

by Iñaki Alvarez

April 28, 2017

Crisis Management for Stadiums

People can panic when in crisis. That’s especially true when it comes to challenging situations in venues or stadiums. Sometimes, the panic can be worse than the situation itself.

Crisis may not be the best word we can use as it most often connotes catastrophe, disaster, emergency, and the like. There are, however, many examples in which we implement crisis management where the situation is not quite a “crisis.” For example, if we have serious inclement weather, a match may be delayed or postponed, and there are standardized ways of handling this situation in crisis management. In another example, the visiting team’s bus breaks down en route to the stadium. Again, this situation should not be a disaster, but we cover it under crisis management.

In actuality, “crisis” comes from the Greek word “decide” or “decision.” And in our event business, this makes total sense. The purpose of crisis management is to decide on a proper course of action given any situation.

In fact, that is the basis for true crisis management. Evaluating “what if” scenarios and planning for every unknown should be standard practice. Here are some examples:

  • What if there is serious inclement weather?
  • What if there is an earthquake or other natural phenomenon?
  • What if there is a bomb threat (mysterious package)? Drones?
  • What if there is a pitch encroachment? Pitch invasion?
  • What if there is a collapse of a structure?
  • What if the lights go out? What if there is a power failure?

All possible situations must be analyzed in advance, with a clear set of protocols set out for every eventuality. Here’s an example of a generic protocol flow that can be adapted as appropriate:

  1. A situation develops.
  2. Based on the situation, analysis is performed.
  3. Based on the analysis, options are brought forward.
  4. Based on the options, a decision is made. Action is taken.
  5. The action is accompanied with monitoring. The loop may repeat itself.
  6. Once the situation is resolved or passes, there is a debrief and lessons are learned.
  7. The lessons learned feed back into the risk management processes.

The best way to handle the next aspects of crisis management is to answer the “Who Questions.” Who is in charge when and where? Who makes decisions, and under what circumstances? Does formation of a Crisis Management Group of some kind make sense? If so, who should be included in that group and under what circumstances should the group be activated? As part of the process, when should the public and the media be informed? What would be the implications if the public is impacted?

To facilitate the answers to these questions, we would like to propose (as a standard) to divide the venue into logical areas based on primary responsibility:

  • Area 1: The Competition area or the Performer’s area. This is where the teams and the referees do their work. In most of these cases, the referees are in charge, and they apply the laws of the game or the rules of the competition. If the event was a concert or a show, then the performers would be on stage and the show director would be in charge. The stage would be the performer’s area. The main concern here would be to allow the players to perform to their maximum potential. Set the stage and the let the actors perform.
  • Area 2: The area just beyond the Competition or Performer’s area. In football, it would be the immediate perimeter around the pitch, making the match commissioner or the general coordinator in charge. The main concern here, in the football example, is to ensure that the match takes place without interference and that the players and officials have everything they need (e.g., goals, nets and corner flags, that all the lights work properly, all the medical personnel are in place, all the cameras and media are in their proper places, dressing rooms are ready, etc.).
  • Area 3: The area beyond Area 2, extending all the way into the outer perimeter rings of the facility. This would include the stands, the gates, all the public areas, all the parking lots, and all the exclusive areas in which Security would be in charge. The stadium’s Command and Control Structure would be in charge of all these areas.

Again areas should be adapted based on logical zones as determined by primary responsibilities. Additionally, if a stadium has multiple configurations due to the hosting of multiple event types (which we strongly encourage), then each configuration might have its own mapping.

Whatever the event, the Command and Control Structure is always, ultimately, in charge of safety and security on a match day or on an event day. They need to ask the questions, “How does this happen? How should it happen?” This is where it can get interesting. This is where excellence needs to shine.

The following is a structure (again from the football world) to consider:

  • If there is any incident on the field of play (Area 1), in 90%+ of the cases, the referee is in charge. He or she maintains the integrity of the match while it is being played.
  • If there is an incident just beyond the field of play (Area 2), then the match commissioner or general coordinator (whatever the title) is in charge. He or she works with the stadium people to support the match as it is played. For example, if a section of the stadium lights go out, then the general coordinator will work with the stadium engineers to ensure a speedy return. A good thing about football is that there is a fourth official who works alongside the general coordinator. This fourth official has direct communication with the referee team via headset technology. The general coordinator in turn has direct communication via radio to the stadium engineers. Hopefully the lights come on quickly and automatically (N+1 set up plus UPS).
  • If there is any incident beyond Area 2, i.e., anywhere else in the stadium (Area 3), then the responsibility is that of security as established by the Command and Control Structure. Using the appropriate radio channels, security communicates with all parts of the stadium.

Please note that we are focusing on communication between the various areas and the decision making process, (i.e., who decides, when and where). In reality, in addition to the radios, the stadium might have various other technologies including CCTV, incident tracking and access control systems, etc.

If an incident occurs in Area 3 but affects the match (Area 1), then the referee team, through the fourth official, interacts with the general coordinator, who in turn communicates with Command and Control. A good example would be when crowd behavior affects the players, such as when there are racist chants, or when items are thrown onto the pitch, or when a spectator(s) attempts to ‘invade’ the field.

One thing to keep in mind is that sometimes a possible solution might have more adverse effects than the original problem. In the example of racist chants and using the generic protocol flow listed above:

  1. A situation develops – racist chants are heard coming from the spectators
  2. Based on the situation, analysis is performed: Is it one person? A small group of persons? An entire section? To what extent is it affecting the match? Are the players reacting? Are there other things going on simultaneous or related?
  3. Based on the analysis, options are brought forward: If it is one person or a small group – does it make sense to remove them? Should there be a warning first? If we attempt to remove them, how will other spectators react? If it is a larger group, should we use the PA system? What are the implications if the match is temporarily suspended? Abandoned? Do we risk more ‘trouble’ if we stop the match?
  4. Based on the options, a decision is made. Action is taken: If it is one person or a small group, then best to remove them as quietly and efficiently as possible. If it is more than a small group, then removing them is probably not a good option. Therefore we can take several steps: Step 1: stop the match, use the PA system, and using a pre-determined script, ask the spectators to stop the behavior. Wait about 30 seconds and then resume the match. Step 2: if Step 1 did not work, stop the match again, and this time, using stronger language, ask the spectators to stop the behavior, and this time inform them of the possibility of abandoning the match. Depending upon any reactions, wait about 60 seconds and then resume the match. Step 3: if Steps 1 and 2 did not work, stop the match, ask the teams and the referees to exit the pitch (return to their dressing rooms), and inform the public that the match has been abandoned. Please note that step 3 is something we want to avoid as much as possible. It is an extreme action. In all my years, it takes tremendous patience, but even in the most challenging situations, the goal should be to conclude the match as scheduled. Safely of course.
  5. The action is accompanied with monitoring. The loop may repeat itself: refer to the sample steps just outlined.
  6. Once the situation is resolved or passes, there is a debrief and lessons are learned: Debrief is always necessary – keep it short and concise as people are already tired. Think about listing what went well and what did not go as well – do not necessarily try to solve things in the debrief. Solutions can come ‘the next day’ when people have had a chance to rest and reflect.
  7. The lessons learned feed back into the risk management processes: continuous improvement.

Another quick note, this time on terminology. Not going to go through the entire vocabulary here, but we used certain words in the section above which are commonly accepted in the industry. It is absolutely critical for effective radio communication that everyone know exactly what certain words mean. For example:

When a match has not yet started:

  • Delay – the match will not start as published but will be delayed to another start time on the same day (for example, weather delay)
  • Postponed – the match will not take place today, but will be rescheduled for another day (for example, stadium issues that cannot be resolved today)
  • Canceled – there will no longer be a match (this is clearly an extreme, and decided by upper management)

When a match has already started:

  • Interrupted or suspended – the match will be temporarily stopped and then restarted (Steps 1 and 2 in the example above)
  • Abandoned – the match will be stopped and will not be restarted (Step 3 in the example above)

We can provide many examples of all kinds of incidents. The important point is that effective crisis management, now more clearly described as decision management, requires clear communication between all the areas. For this to occur, crisis management needs to be a part of the overall full integration testing processes which we have mentioned in previous articles. It can be said that risks, once accounted for, are no longer risks.

In coming posts, we will cover what makes a good Command and Control Structure, and evaluate who should be included. We will also delve deeper into access control, the Achilles heel of many stadiums. There is a ‘dirty little secret’ in the business and that is that many stadiums do not know who exactly is in the building, especially on event days. We are speaking here mainly about contractors – guest services, catering, stewarding and others. A typical event day will require hundreds of them and in many cases they are not properly qualified and verified. In all cases, what will make or break any system will be the people. Remember, we are in the people business.

In his most recent role, Iñaki served as Director of Operations for CONCACAF (Confederation of North, Central American, and Caribbean Football Federations), one of the six confederations under FIFA. In this role, Iñaki was responsible for the delivery of all the confederation events including the annual Congress, the bi-annual Gold Cup, as well as most recently the Copa America Centenario. Before joining CONCACAF, Iñaki was with FIFA for 10 years where he held the dual roles of Deputy Director for the Competitions Division and Head of Event Management. The one consistent theme going across most if not all of Iñaki’s experiences is that he has become not just a stadium expert, but also an expert in helping organizations prepare to host major events.