Las Vegas Sun

October 22, 2017

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The exit you most likely would use in an emergency might be the wrong one, experts say

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John Locher / AP

Debris litters a festival grounds across the street from Mandalay Bay, Tuesday, Oct. 3, 2017, in Las Vegas. Authorities said Stephen Paddock broke the windows of his hotel suite and began firing with a cache of weapons, killing dozens and injuring hundreds at a music festival at the grounds.

In an emergency evacuation situation, a person’s natural instinct is to exit where they entered.

For the thousands of country music fans who were at the Route 91 Harvest Festival on Oct. 1 when a gunman opened fire from far above their heads, this instinct might have resulted in smaller but closer exits being overlooked and a flooding of the outdoor venue space’s main entrance. And it is part of what makes any large-scale gathering of people particularly dangerous during any type of emergency evacuation scenario.

The thought of hundreds or thousands of people getting bottlenecked and trapped in harm’s way has led some to begin questioning what evacuation and emergency procedures were in place and whether there were enough points of exit available for festivalgoers. Firsthand accounts from attendees say that at least one horde of people and one vehicle physically pushed down fences in order to create additional exits for those fleeing the scene.

The full scope of injuries to the nearly 500 people who wound up in hospitals after the shooting is not entirely clear. Sunrise Hospital announced that 120 of the 204 victims it treated were shot. University Medical Center and other hospitals have not revealed any numbers about their patients. It is likely that hundreds were injured in other ways, possibly after hopping a barricade or being trampled by others fleeing the scene.

Experts say situations like that, while horrific, are extremely difficult to avoid.

“One of the things we know is that most people are likely to exit where they entered, even when it’s not where they should go,” said Tamara Madensen, a criminal justice professor at UNLV who studies crowd dynamics and the management of stadiums and other large venues. “If you had a greater number of exits, could it have helped relieve some of the pressure? Sure. But you are still fighting against basic human psychology.”

Various videos taken by festival attendees and posted to social media capture chaotic scenes throughout the shooting, which lasted approximately 10 minutes. In one, people in the area nearest to the stage are seen scattering in every direction, some looking for cover, others running indiscriminately. In another, the exit nearest the Mandalay Bay is seen blocked off — which police and event security did to stop people from running directly into the line of fire — as attendees are directed to an exit farther north on Las Vegas Boulevard. In that video, people run, and sometimes walk, away from the grounds while security and strangers yell at them to go faster. What cannot be seen is whether three smaller exits shown toward the east edge of the event ground on a festival planning map are utilized heavily.

Emergency management professionals, large venue operators and event planners often use crowd simulation (also known as crowd modeling) software to attempt to predict what would happen in crisis situations, but the application is imperfect at best.

“Modeling is really helpful because it gives us something, but mimicking human behavior is difficult,” Madensen said. “If you watch models, everyone moves as an individual, but most people know, very few people go to large events by themselves. That changes dynamics.”

Most of the academic research related to crowd modeling focuses on fires or weather-related evacuations. An active-shooter situation, especially one with the unseen dynamics of the Oct. 1 event, adds factors that again change the model and make it difficult to accurately predict what might happen, or what could have helped after the fact.

Contemporary Services Corp., which staffed the Route 91 Harvest Festival, enjoys a national reputation as an industry leader. Locally, the Nevada division has handled security and staffing at many of the biggest outdoor events and venues in Las Vegas, including Electric Daisy Carnival, Life is Beautiful and some events at T-Mobile Arena.

Jay Purves, the CSC vice president of Nevada, says security and staffing plans are decided months in advance. For annual events like Route 91, planning for the following year often begins weeks after the current year’s festivities conclude. It is always focused on improving based on the current year’s performance.

CSC had 200 employees — almost all of them part-time — at Route 91 that night. Purves says all had been trained on evacuations and crowd management, and briefed on specifics related to the venue. Their employees helped direct people to exits during the chaos. One staffer, Erick Silva, died in the hospital after being shot in the head. Two others were shot — one while pulling Silva out of the path of the fleeing crowd, the other while assisting the evacuation of disabled people inside the ADA viewing area. Both are expected to survive.

Purves is proud of his staff for handling an impossible situation.

“You couldn’t have predicted this would happen,” he said. “There is no precedent.”

LACK OF NATIONAL STANDARDS

Not everyone is convinced sufficient measures were in place to protect the public.

Using guidelines set by national organizations like the International Code Council, local municipalities set fire and building codes designed to keep people safe during emergency situations. These codes cover things like room capacity, number of exits, and lighting or alarm requirements. Standards for outdoor venues like festivals and fairs are less codified, though there are suggested guidelines provided by some organizations.

“My concern is nobody looked after the crowd,” says Paul Wertheimer, founder of Crowd Management Strategies. He has specialized in crowd dynamics for decades and served as the crowd safety expert during a 2010 court case against Walmart after one of its employees was trampled to death on Black Friday.

Wertheimer reviewed videos from Route 91 that have been circulating on news outlets and social media. He sees concerns and has questions.

“The lights go out on the stage and everybody in the audience is left there clueless,” he said. “They are sitting ducks with no direction and no help and no guidance and no information on what to do.”

After a 2003 Rhode Island nightclub fire started by onstage pyrotechnics left 96 people dead and more than 200 injured, there was a call to require special events to publicly announce where emergency exits are located. It’s similar to a flight attendant reminding airline passengers that in the event of an unlikely evacuation, the nearest exit may be behind them.

Rhode Island adopted the requirement but enforcement is reportedly lax.

“It’s an easy safety measure,” says Bob Sweeney, a retired safety professional who has been publicly advocating for these type of announcements since the Rhode Island tragedy. “It’s very critical we do more.”

Clark County declined repeated requests to answer questions regarding what safety measures and requirements are considered by its department of building and fire prevention when approving large-scale outdoor special events.

GOLD STANDARDS VS. BLACK SWANS

Las Vegas long has been seen as a leader in event management and security.

That might provide little comfort for a city reeling in the aftermath of 58 deaths and hundreds of injuries, but experts believe the sentiment is no less true today than before 1 October.

“Vegas is the gold standard,” said Steven Adelman, founder of Adelman Law Group, an Arizona-based firm specializing in legal issues related to live entertainment events and venues. “We in the event community recognize that Vegas simply has more resources, more experience, gets the best people in many respects. That’s why (it) gets the best events – because it’s Vegas.”

Madensen echoes the sentiment.

“We deal with every type of crowd (here in Vegas),” she said. “The number of events we have on any given day, the way we’re able to handle the numbers of people and types of events … The people here are crowd management experts. They are outstanding.”

Yet the Oct. 1 event happened on the Strip, offering a sobering reminder of the limits of any security efforts.

“Even being the gold standard, you can’t play perfect defense against someone who is intent on playing offense, plans really carefully, has very substantial resources at his disposal, is very careful, is unobtrusive and draws no attention until he draws fire,” Adelman said. “It is exceptionally difficult to stop someone like that — even in Las Vegas.”

He adds that to find a tragedy comparable to the Route 91 massacre, you have to go back to the University of Texas tower shooting in 1966 or the assassination of President John F. Kennedy by Lee Harvey Oswald. Both of those involved a shooter from an elevated position.

In the world of special events and crowd management, there are two types of crises: white swans and black swans.

White swans are common, “high probability, low consequence” incidents, explains Madensen. They are events like people passing out from heat exhaustion and needing medical attention, drunk people starting a fist fight, or traffic control to avoid collisions between people exiting a venue and cars trying to drive by it. Black swans are “low probability, high consequence.” The events of 1 October fall into this category.

Las Vegas is well versed in dealing with white swans, said Madensen. Metro has a unit dedicated to special events. Many municipalities don’t because they don’t have enough special events to make one necessary.

Black-swan events often become the case studies that lead to foundational changes. While it is too soon to know what might come from this tragedy, experts anticipate increased scrutiny and evaluation to occur as additional details — and inevitable lawsuits already being formed — come into focus.

“This forces us to reevaluate everything,” Madensen said. “I know that’ll be happening. I guarantee it.”