Stadium evac gets a new game plan

After the collapse of the stage at the Indiana State Fair that killed five people last August, officials tried to determine if there was any way the tragedy could have been avoided. The Indiana incident was the third outdoor show last summer where...

The most common cause of stadium evacuation is severe weather. Other than the high winds during summer outdoor concerts, recent emergency situations related to severe weather or lightning have triggered evacuations of college football games at South Carolina, Virginia Tech and Oklahoma universities. In April, Busch Stadium in St. Louis was evacuated during a Friday night baseball game when tornado warnings sounded and over 40,000 baseball fans were rapidly sheltered in place.

“Depending on location, most of our member stadiums utilize weather data reporting services or radar to anticipate a need for evacuation,” says Mary Mycka, executive director of the Stadium Managers Association. Members of SMA have been on yellow alert since being identified as soft targets by DHS in 2001. The DHS Office of Infrastructure Protection encourages and funds means for stadiums to develop, test and review evacuation plans. “DHS offers personalized and cost-free risk-assessment tools to our facilities,” Mycka says.

It is what happens after an evacuation order is given that concerns disaster planners. In nearly every weather-related evacuation, fans tend to panic and rush for the exists, clogging tunnels. The panic would likely be worse if thick smoke began drifting into the seats or an explosive device went off.

Since practice evacuations on a stadium scale are impractical, computer simulation systems have emerged to let disaster planners sleep better by giving them insight into factors not easily tested in exercises. Hence, the need for evacuation simulators like SportEvac.

Contact sport

SportEvac is meant to help stadium security and disaster planners answer key questions tailored to specific scenarios, such as how the facility can be evacuated in the shortest time if IEDs are found simultaneously in, say, all the men’s rooms, or how to shelter a capacity crowd in place due to drastic weather events, the best ways for emergency workers to get inside the stadium while frantic fans are trying to get out, or alternate ways to relieve inevitable parking lot gridlock.

There’s more. Evacuating a stadium is a contact sport. Simulation wrinkles can be added. SportEvac is designed to simulate what happens in the event of unpredictable evacuation complications, such as the effect of wet concourse floors on fan movement or what might happen if the power goes out and exit corridors go dark. The system is also capable of assessing the impact on the evacuation of aisle-sitters too frightened to move, wheelchair congestion in tunnel bottlenecks, the harm that might be expected from inebriated bleacher bums and fans attempting to return to their seats to fetch field glasses, purses or children lost in the surge.

Not everyone attending a sporting event actually has a seat ticket. “If there’s an approaching tornado, you’re still responsible for those people who may be outside the stadium but still on your grounds,” Marciani says. “How do you shelter them? Is there room to move them into the stadium? If so, how do you do that if you have a 7-minute window?”

Marciani says eventual enhancements for SportEvac will include modeling routines that look at pedestrians, traffic patterns, and how nearby public transport fits in the picture. In the past two years, NCS4 officials have conducted more than 60 sport event risk management workshops at collegiate and professional stadiums across the country. Marciani has begun to use SportEvac in the workshops. It’s been beta tested at Roberts Stadium on campus, at the University of Tennessee, and at the United States Military Academy at West Point.

Marciani says these workshops have resulted in the training and certification of more than 1,700 individuals representing 416 NCAA Division I, II and III institutions. The 2001 attacks inspired authorities at all collegiate and professional stadiums to a more heightened state of readiness in anticipation of what-if. In August 2010, NCS4 hosted the inaugural National Sports Safety and Security Conference and Exhibition in New Orleans. More than 300 attendees and 43 vendors participated. The importance of stadium evacuation planning was signaled by high-profile keynote speakers DHS Secretary Janet Napolitano and NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell.

Squeeze play

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