Don t panic: crowd research to help event managers

13 September 2010
The overcrowding at Fatboy Slim’s Beach Boutique in 2002 overwhelmed the l

The overcrowding at Fatboy Slim’s Beach Boutique in 2002 overwhelmed the local authorities, stewards and emergency services.

New research by University of Sussex academic Dr John Drury could help UK event managers to manage potential mass emergencies and facilitate crowd events more effectively - with a bit of help from Fatboy Slim.

The research, funded by the Leverhulme Trust, will feature a survey to investigate how far crowd managers such as the local authorities, stewards, police and security teams subscribe to common "disaster myths" or other more positive views of crowds, and how these inform their decision making. The findings will also help shape further work into how crowd behaviours vary in relation to the way crowds are managed.

The survey, the first of its kind to be undertaken, will document the opinions of those in positions of responsibility for the preparation for and management of mass emergencies.

The second part of the project involves an analysis of official guidance documentation, to determine whether such psychological ’myths’ have endorsement by policy-makers and others in higher authority on the management of mass emergencies.

Finally, the researchers will examine how police and event managers’ representations of crowd events operate in practice, through a case study of two large dance-parties featuring chart-topping DJ Fatboy Slim, which took place on Brighton Beach.

Popular opinion tends to see a crowd in a potential emergency situation as a chaotic mass of panic-stricken individuals who need to be herded and controlled.

Previous research by Dr Drury, however, has shown consistently that mass emergency behaviour is orderly and cooperative and far removed from popular representations of crowd behavior - the so-called ’disaster myths’, which include ’mass panic’, violence, disorder and chaos.

Dr Drury, who is conducting the research with Dr Clifford Stott, of the University of Liverpool, says: "These ’myths’ suggest that crowds in emergencies are psychologically vulnerable and in need of top-down expert care and control.

"Our research in the related field of crowd protest, however, has shown that some forms of intervention by the authorities can inadvertently create and escalate the mass conflict that they seek to prevent. This is because some senior police officers tend to view crowds as inherently irrational and prone to violence. We will test to see how far such views are also held in the management of mass emergencies."

The first beach party, Fatboy Slim’s Beach Boutique in 2002, was a free music event that drew huge numbers of fans from all over the UK. The resulting overcrowding overwhelmed the local authorities, stewards and emergency services. A follow-up event in 2007 was more closely controlled, being ticket only.

Dr Drury says: "The question here is to what extent were the decisions of the organisers of the second event shaped by their concerns about potential disaster, following the earlier event? What was the balance between these fears, positive representations of the party crowd, and logistical and legal considerations?

"We also want to discover to what extent did attempts to prevent ’disaster’ limit the enjoyment of party-goers, and undermine party-goers’ practical and psychological abilities independently to care for each at moments of stress during the event?"

The overall aim of the research is to provide scientific data and practical advice that will inform good practice in all kinds of crowd management and policy.