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Critical elements in event incident management and response

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Learn what you need to do to effectively set your event team up for dealing with things that go wrong.

Anyone who’s been involved in managing or delivering an event knows that all the planning in the world cannot prevent things going wrong.

It’s just the nature of the industry. We’re not quite at Murphy’s Law – “anything that can go wrong will go wrong” - but no matter how mature your risk management practices, you cannot eliminate all risk in the dynamic events context.

So, time for some tough love on the other side of the risk management equation - you have identified and assessed your risks, and implemented as many of the right controls as you can. You have plans and processes that are up to date and fit for purpose, and your insurance is locked in. Job done, right? Well... the good news is that you're about halfway there. 

Planning and controlling known risks is only half of the story. The way you and your team respond when the unknown or the unexpected occurs could be the difference between success and failure for your event, particularly where safety or security incidents are concerned.

It’s essential, then, that you’re prepared to manage them - and not just you, because with the best will in the world you can't be everywhere at the same time. So this means you need to put in place the critical elements of an incident response and management system, AND make sure every member of your workforce has the information they need to act on your behalf in those moments.

To help you prepare, we’ll run through some elements of incident management so you can be ready for the risks you know about, as well as those that you can't predict. We’ll start with a little context and then cover:

      • 1. Incident Management Planning

      • 2. Chains of Command

      • 3. Relevant Training

      • 4. Communication Channels

      • 5. Mitigation Strategies

      • 6. Incident Response Evaluation Systems

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Defining some terminology

Google “incident management” and you’re liable to get a lot of results related to “IT incident management” or “incident management  (ITSM).” Likewise, an “event” could be an “incident” in that IT folks sometime talk about an “event” as when things go wrong in a computer system. Indeed, the ISO’s guidance on risk management defines “events” as an: “occurrence or change of a particular set of circumstances.”

To be absolutely clear, in this article we’re concerned with incident response and management at events. Put simply, what you do when the risks you thought you had controlled, or the ones you wouldn't have predicted in a month of Sundays in your risk management planning turn into incidents.

There’s other lingo out there for this, such as “risk response”, which seems to be more the norm in project management, or even “incident response”. And there’s also a lot of crossover here with approaches to “emergency management” too. 

incident-bg-linePreparing for incidents

Let’s assume you’ve answered all the essential event planning questions that will help you minimize risk. You’ve developed a risk register and risk management plan and decided on risk mitigation measures for known hazards. You have documented everything, and shared the right information with the right people in your team and beyond. As a team, you're satisfied that you have the following covered :  

  • You’ve designed your event plan to avoid some risks that were unacceptable – you’ve set an age limit that reflects the drinking age to avoid underage drinking.
  • You’ve accepted some risks that have consequences you can deal with – you can hardly include pony rides in your county fair if you don’t accept some risk a child could fall off.
  • You’ve mitigated some risks by implementing control measures – you’ve fenced off the cliff that borders your outdoor festival venue.
  • You’ve transferred some risks to other parties – you’ve outsourced your food and beverage provision, so while you still need to be "a responsible host" and do your own checks and due diligence, your supplier is responsible for checking IDs and making sure food safety standards are fully complied with. 

But what if, for instance, your supplier's bar staff fail to identify that some legal-age attendees are sharing their alcohol with their underage buddies...

The point is that with all the planning and controls in the world, you can't control every single action or person at your event. Things still do go wrong, even with good risk management practices.

And sometimes a seemingly mundane mix-up has the potential to create a serious problem for your event or your brand, like a crucial envelope having the wrong name inside (as organizers of The Oscars found out).

As mundane or as dramatic as the incident may turn out to be, your team needs to be able to manage incidents effectively. For that to happen, you need a plan for dealing with incidents that includes:

  • 1. Who needs to know?
  • 2. Who is needed to deal with the situation?
  • 3. What they need to do?
  •  
  • And, crucially, how do you communicate with everyone involved in a secure, timely way, without causing confusion or panic?
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Incident management planning

What do you need to put in your plan to ensure your team can respond effectively when things go wrong? Your risk register -- the one you prepared earlier -- should specify your response to an incident, as well as the controls already in place. Just as importantly, your whole team needs to have sighted, read and signalled understanding of the register and the associated response plans, as well as be in the loop for every change or update.

We’re going to look to disaster recovery theory for some guidance here and draw on an old, but useful, model for evaluating the management of community disasters. From the specified criteria we can create a template for the elements of an event incident management plan that you can use for your own events:

 

  1. Ensure your team has the training it needs – What do event staff and volunteer team members need to know to respond to incidents they may have to deal with? What information do they need and where will they get it, when they're being on-boarded, as well as in the moment should an incident occur? 
  2. Make sure you have the best processes in place for responding to incidents – In disaster recovery they talk about “generic functions”. This means having a plan for managing a site evacuation or shelter-in-place response to a forest fire, a flood or a hurricane, or to an active assailant or structural collapse. In event planning, this may mean coordinating with the city and police where public roads around your venue are involved.
  3. Have practiced, fit-for-purpose methods in place to mobilize people and resources – How will you reach the right people, without delays or miscommunications? How will they know where to go, what equipment to take, and which processes to follow?

  4. Ensure tasks are delegated appropriately – you need to know who is on site, what skills and training they have, and how you want them to respond to an incident. Even more importantly, you want to know who hasn't turned up, and make sure their responsibilities have gone to someone suitable.

  5. Be set up to make sure to receive the information you need – What’s the process for assessing the incident and recording / communicating the information responders need?

  6. Ensure decisions can be made quickly – Who makes the decisions and how do you make sure they have the information they need in a timely manner to make that decision?
  7. Ensure your response is well coordinated – How will responders work together?
  8. Ensure people know what they need to know – How will you tell attendees, suppliers, staff, volunteers, the media, other stakeholders what they need to know?

 

Underlying these elements of your planned response are the foundations of incident management that your event plan needs to include. Let’s take a look at them now.

 

Chain of command

It’s essential that your team knows what their responsibilities are and who to turn to when something goes wrong. That means you need a clear “chain of command.”

This might sound a bit formal. Relax. We’re not suggesting you allocate ranks to team members, require them to salute supervisors and await instructions when anything goes wrong.

We’re talking about empowering your people to respond quickly to accidents and system failures within their area of responsibility. Also being aware of who can make the decisions they’re not trained or qualified to make, as well as knowing the difference between what they can and can't decide on the spot. You might, for instance, allow security staff discretion around who they let enter a section of the venue, but require them to consult with their manager (who you have verified as being competent and qualified) before deciding to stop serving drinks or shut down a particular attraction.

Event Scotland offers some insight into event team structure and some sage advice:

 

“Ultimately the success of your event will be directly related to the effectiveness of your team and overall structure – so take time in the early stages to plan and get this right.”

 

The secret here is clearly defining team members roles and specifying who they report to or consult. If these things are clear, people will know who to contact when they need help and who makes the required calls.

 

Relevant training

It's important to have people with the right training and competencies at strategic places in your workforce. However, it is just as important that you have given them training and guidance on the way you do things, and your expectations of them. Each event and every venue is different, so don't rely on their previous experience - make sure they know what you want them to know.

Good recruiting practice and use of volunteer talent will help you out here. You should be sure, where you can, to identity team members that already have skills and experience you need in a role, and to make time for them to have event-specific on-boarding and training.

Hint: This is where transferring risks often comes into play and you employ specialists like security experts or certified tradespeople. If you're installing temporary infrastructures or technology, it's especially important to do your due diligence on your suppliers, and make sure they have the right qualifications, safety processes and insurance.

You might also consider putting your own event crew through event safety training to ensure everyone is equipped with essential skills. You could check out the Event Safety Alliance to see what sort of training is available and look at upskilling your crew. It’s going to help your event run smoother, plus it adds a string to their bow so they’ll get something out of it too.

 

Communication channels

You already know that good communication channels are an essential part of any successful event, and they’re equally important for incident management.

Your chain of command will be irrelevant if team members can’t reach the next step in the chain when they reach the limits of their own responsibility or training / skills. Your overall response to an incident might fail to meet your high standards if your wider team members don't have the information they need, when they need it, and in a consistent place.

  • Maybe a volunteer team at a remote aid station for an endurance race needs to know what to do in a medical emergency while they wait for the ambulance or rescue helicopter.
  • Maybe the ticketing team needs to know whether there is any truth in the rumor that ticket prices are now discounted circulating on social media.
  • Maybe you need to adjust your scheduled performances, and let attendees and your team know of the changes (and about the traffic management delays outside the venue causing the hold-up).

In many situations effective communication promotes an effective response. Technology can overcome common issues like isolated communication systems across different teams and suppliers, and event teams referring to inconsistent versions of event schedules.

Govtech’s definition of effective disaster management is equally applicable in the event context:

 

“Effective disaster management or disaster response can be defined as providing the technology, tools and practices that enable disaster response organizations to systematically manage information from multiple sources and collaborate effectively to assist survivors, mitigate damage and help communities rebuild.”

 

You’re probably not going to be charged with rebuilding a community and, hopefully, you won’t be assisting survivors. But you do need effective collaboration across your team to manage incidents effectively and minimize their impact on your event.

So, you need a communications solution like Blerter which gives you the tools you need, like giving team members and stakeholders the information they require via an app on their cell phones.

smartphone in hand with colourful lights 

Applying mitigation practices

As we’ve already detailed, your risk management planning and risk register will specify how you respond to incidents. Responses could range from offering affected attendees a free beverage to calling on specialized rescue teams or calling in law enforcement.

It’s essential that you tie all these elements together so your team works together well: chain of command is followed, relevant training and skills are put into action, and the right communication tools and technology are available.

Evaluating situation management

When the dust settles it’s important that you review your response and evaluate how effectively you managed the situations that arose.

  • 1. Were you and your team able to respond as you planned?
  • 2. Did the response serve to minimize the impact of the problem or incident?
    •          
      3. Did the chain of command enable an efficient and effective response to the problem?
  • 4. Did your team have the right information and training, or did you have the right specialists in place to implement your response processes effectively?
  • 5. Did your communications strategy provide the right information, to the right people, at the right time?
  • Were the mitigation practices and response you planned fit for purpose?

Again, we can turn to advice designed for a slightly different context. Writing in Policy and Society, Allan McConnell proposes a model for assessing crisis management that could be applied to event incident management:

A crisis management initiative is successful if it follows pre-anticipated and/or relevant processes and involves the taking of decisions that have the effect of minimizing loss of life/damage, restoring order and achieving political goals, while attracting universal or near universal support and/or virtually no opposition.

In the event context, you’re looking to minimize loss and get the event back on track in a way that satisfies your stakeholders, your attendees and your event crew. You want to respond to incidents quickly and decisively, meet your health and safety obligations, and protect your event brand and sponsors.

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Conclusion

How well is your event set up to manage your risk? Do you have an up-to-date, appropriate incident management plan specifying what your team will do when things go wrong? Is your chain of command established and efficient? Do your team members have the skills and training they need? Do you have the communications strategy and tools you need? Are your risk mitigation processes and controls practical and effective?

 

Talk to the Blerter team about how our event delivery platform can help you manage incidents during your event. Or if you need a helping hand with your risk management plan download the following Risk Mitigation Guide.

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