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August 2, 2009

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Crowd management- Why a systems approach makes sense

The chaos that reigned at the opening of Heathrow’s Terminal 5 last year is a perfect example of what happens when public-event organisers place their faith in technology rather than people, according to a major new series of reports into crowd behaviour and management.

Compiled for the Cabinet Office by researchers from two centres within Leeds University Business School (COSLAC and CSTSD), the reports also claim that over-reliance on technical and IT solutions means we fail to learn the lessons from past disasters.

The authors say the Understanding Crowd Behaviours reports are the first to bring together sociological and psychological research on events and crowd behaviour, having reviewed more than 550 academic papers and conducted in-depth interviews with 27 specialists in the field (police, emergency planners and event managers) to produce detailed guidelines for event organisers.

They claim the findings will be of use to all those managing events involving large numbers of people, and are particularly timely in the run up to the 2012 Olympics.
Researcher in organisational psychology, Rose Challenger, and colleagues Prof Chris Clegg and Mark Robinson, believe that an approach that treats technical and sociological/psychological considerations in parallel – known in organisational psychology as a ‘systems approach’ – is the best preparation for a crowd event. It would also, they believe, help us learn lessons from previous mistakes.

Said Challenger: “A systems approach is widely seen as best practice in organisational management – particularly in managing change – and is clearly applicable in crowd and event management as well. Technical solutions will give you the engineering calculations to determine the ideal width of exits but you need to tie that in with understanding how people will behave and use those exits in given situations, and how you will communicate with people in an emergency to ensure best use of them.”

In the reports, the team highlights gaps in knowledge and areas where further research is needed, including more detailed analysis of the different types of crowd and their behaviour, and better simulation models, which take the complexity of behaviour into account.

Also identified is a need for more sophisticated risk-assessment tools, which can ensure a full range of ‘what if’ scenarios is taken into account. The reports highlight how the chaos at Terminal Five was caused not because of one major failure but when lots of smaller and otherwise manageable problems had a cumulative effect.

“There can be a tendency when planning events to prepare for the big dramatic ‘what ifs’ but ignore the smaller, less visible although more likely ones, which collectively can cause serious problems,” added Challenger. “It’s important to ensure your risk assessment isn’t blinkered. For example, at Hillsborough there was an over-emphasis on hooliganism, as that was the big issue of the day, but other, more generic safety issues were overlooked. Today, we may tend to focus on the risk of a terrorist attack and ignore more banal risks, such as power or transport failures, or a gas leak.”

The reports are available on the Cabinet Office UK Resilience website.

For a previous SHP feature on managing crowds in an emergency, see the April 2009 issue – Far from the madding crowd, by Dr John Drury, or click here

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