‘The UK is as seen as the standard bearer’: In conversation with Mark Breen of Safe Events and Cuckoo Events
As an award-winning expert who is in demand all around the world, Mark Breen knows a thing or two about event safety.
Mr Breen is Director of Safe Events, as well as Cuckoo Events, which is based in Dublin.
He works on a range of festivals, including Wild Lights at Dublin Zoo and multiple events in Saudi Arabia.
Mr Breen is also a Specialist Member of the International Institute of Risk and Safety Management (IIRSM) and will be co-chairing next month’s IIRSM Conference for Crowd and Event Safety in Manchester.
You work on events all over the world. How does event safety in the UK and Ireland compare with the rest of the globe?
Mark Breen (MB): “The UK in particular is seen as the standard bearer. A lot of UK guidance is either officially or unofficially used around the world, because the event safety industry has existed in Britain for a lot longer than anywhere else. You do find a lot of other countries refer to UK guidance, but at the same time, we see a lot of the same problems happen around the world.
“We were at a conference yesterday and there was a big discussion about how blocked fire exits and bad site design are what we all see most regularly. The standards can vary, but the problems we encounter regularly are quite similar.
“We do a lot of work in Saudi Arabia and the Saudi culture in general can explain away a lot of things. We implemented a massive transport management plan for a gig. The plan was beautiful, but what we did not know about Saudi culture was when the ladies and the kids are being driven to the event, the driver has to drop them as close to the front entrance as possible. A five-lane highway quickly became a car park.”
Presumably, you’ve had quite a busy summer. What have been the real highlights this year?
MB: “Over here in Ireland, we did a huge event – Fleadh Cheoil na hEireann – which is a ginormous celebration of Irish culture, heritage and music. It draws half a million people across seven to 10 days. For us, it’s a massive challenge, because it takes over an entire city. If was the first time the Fleadh had used a professional event management company to put a structure on how it all works. For us, that was huge.”
Did the recent heatwave impact any event safety planning for you?
MB: “It impacted the management more than the planning. We plan and manage the Dublin Pride event as well, which is massive. My business partner, Martin, was out the day before Dublin Pride, buying sunscreen in bulk to make sure all our staff had sunscreen the following day. We would normally do packs for our staff anyway.
“If it was a five-day heatwave and the event was in the middle of it, you are more tuned in, but because it was already warm, I think people were less prepared. There were other festivals on here in Ireland, who contacted us on the Friday, saying ‘have you any angle on getting us a tonne load of water, because the water we had for the weekend has gone’.
“I know talking from medical suppliers that they were dealing with more heat-related issues. On one of the international festivals I worked on this summer, the medical staff said they did as much heat-related treatment on the Friday as they had for the whole festival last year.”
Chicago Marathon Masses
How important is it to get all the local stakeholders onboard when planning event safety?
MB: “The importance of stakeholder engagement cannot be underestimated. The bottom line is having all the right people around the table makes everything easier. If people have been planning together, they understand each other and trust each other. We were at a conference yesterday and there was a guy from the Chicago Marathon. He said the absolute core of their event was the local community. They have to be bought in and accept a level of disruption, but also understand the economic value. When we put on big events in the middle of the city and shut down roads, there is no avoiding the fact that we are annoying certain people. You need all the right people around the table to give you permission to do these things, but you need to engage proactively with residents and businesses.
“A lot of bad feedback is down to a lack of engagement with the community. There will always be ‘Mary in House Number Two’ and you can’t do enough for her and she will hate your event anyway. But what you don’t want to do is bury your head in the sand and try to avoid hassle, by avoiding talking to people. If you are looking forward, you need to get people onboard as early as possible. It can make all the difference.”
You will be helping to chair the IIRSM conference on crowd and event safety next month in Manchester on 10 October. What do you think the big issues at the conference will be?
MB: “The first thing I’ll be talking about is real risk versus topical threats. This is an ongoing conversation in the industry and we wanted to give everyone a safe, professional space to talk about it. There are active shooters and hostile vehicle mitigation. We all get caught up in these things, when disasters or atrocities happen around the world. We all know we need to consider those as part of our risk assessments, but they do not automatically make my event in Dublin more likely to have vehicle attack. From a risk assessment perspective, nothing might have changed for me. I’m more likely to have a problem with trip hazards created by my production team, using the wrong barriers at the front of stage or a build-up of rubbish near a fire exit.
“The other thing we wanted to do at this conference is talk about crowd safety and event safety. Some people think of crowd safety as crowd dynamics, crowd movement and psychology and think of event safety as proper PPE and structures falling down. What we want to do at the conference is talk about event safety, so Roger Barrett, who is the co-chair will be doing a session on temporary structures.
“A lot of issues we see are structure related. You could have a huge festival loading in a main stage without any front edge protection, so people could fall off the front edge when they are working. Or there could be ramps at the back which are at such a steep incline that someone will hurt themselves pushing a flightcase up them.
“There will also be a focus on lockdown procedures. Until the attacks in Paris, I think a lot of us did not have great lockdown procedures factored into our planning. We all think about escape and getting out of the venues, but we need to consider whether the safest place for our attendees may be right where they are. You can have long conversations with clients, saying ‘depending on the scenario we may need to shelter everyone in the venue’. You have to look at what resources you have onsite. You might need multiple grab bags stashed around the site, in case you need them.”
The IIRSM conference on crowd and event safety takes place at Victoria Place in Manchester on 10 October.
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