By Douglas Grant

Communities are well aware of the importance of festivals as places to socialize, unwind and spend time with friends and family. At a recent forum hosted by the City of Markham and Calian Emergency Management, professionals discussed some of the challenges and solutions regarding festivals and their resources for emergency planning.

The day-long forum held in Markham in May touched on several important issues in emergency management for community events. It included presentations on policing tactics (Lisa Boon, York Region Police), festivals (Dr. Christine Van Winkle, University of Manitoba), weather planning (Ron Bianchi, Met-Ocean Services), food safety (Becky Hester, York Region Public Health), training exercises (myself) and large crowd planning (Alain Normand, Brampton Emergency Management Office). Here, I’d like to focus on some of the material presented by Dr. Van Winkle, a professor who specializes in recreation and tourism management.

While Dr. Van Winkle presented some telling research indicating how unprepared many festivals are, the forum itself was a positive signal that professionals are recognizing the need for more attention on emergency preparedness.

Dr. Van Winkle discussed the results of her 2016 study that surveyed 446 festival and event administrators in Canada and the U.S. It found about one third of festivals have operating budgets of less than $50,000 and most are non-profits. The most commonly reported number of full-time staff was zero, and the median was one full-time, permanent employee. Festivals tend to take place over the course of more than one day, and outside in a public space such as a park. With very few staff and a large number of volunteers, there can be a lack of emergency planning.

“These organizations are often operating with very few resources and accomplishing an awful lot. You’re getting a lot of bang for your buck from festival organizations. They’re excellent at using resources across festivals and events and partnering with communities,” Dr. Van Winkle said during her presentation. “But they’re also very vulnerable to emergencies.”

Dr. Van Winkle initiated a separate study a few years ago about festivals and safety and security. Preliminary data gathered in an email survey of 18 festivals found some of them reported having protocols for missing children or severe weather, but most did not have full emergency management plans – and some didn’t have a sense that they should have one.

Calian is happy to be supporting a new research project by Dr. Van Winkle, with funding from the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada, which is looking at social media communications during festival emergencies. For this study Dr. Van Winkle is leading research on the use of social media communications by festivals during specific human-induced, technical or natural emergencies that caused a festival or festival program to be halted. Dr. Van Winkle has identified research questions as: How are groups communicating with each other? What’s effective? What’s not effective? Who’s connected to whom, and how was information travelling through the social network? The findings of this study, she added, could be relevant to festivals around the world.

It is now recognized that social media communications can be critical to the safety of festival-goers during emergencies. People want their mobile devices with them at festivals and events, helping them to stay connected as well as for comfort and safety – which makes mobile communications an ideal emergency communication tool at events. Effective use of social media could significantly improve communications for events – during, before and after an emergency.

In the aftermath of an event emergency, one of the issues that can arise is a “blame game.” Dr. Van Winkle raised the example of the Love Parade music festival tragedy in Germany, where 21 people died and hundreds were injured after a crush of festival-goers attempted to leave a crowded festival area. Reports indicated that the number of people at the 2010 event had exceeded its capacity of about 250,000.

As Dr. Van Winkle noted, the disaster resulted in blame getting tossed between the police, the organizers and the city – which is unhelpful. In fact it raises an important issue in responsibility for emergency planning for events. While police may look to event organizers to have some planning in place, organizers may believe emergency management is the responsibility of government agencies and police.

What is really needed is not blaming or a finding of culpability, but better communication and coordination between agencies and community organizations to ensure they are working toward the same goal. While resources may be an issue for many festivals, it is vital that they be in contact with their municipal emergency management office. As Dr. Van Winkle suggests, festivals could also make an effort to recruit emergency management volunteers – people who could take the lead on festival emergency preparedness.

Open communications between all people involved is the first step to improving responsiveness, safety and security. Table-top exercises, even for small organizations, are a good option for testing communications, coordination and actions during emergency scenarios.

Overall I am happy to see that professionals from all sides are recognizing these challenges and coming together to find solutions. By communicating and collaborating with community agencies and groups, festivals can work toward ensuring there are plans and procedures in place that maintain festivals as vibrant, safe and fun spaces within our communities.

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