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 things do inevitably go 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” -- levels of peril. But no matter how hard you try to mitigate risks, some of them will likely lead to the odd incident here and there during your events.
Bit of tough love here, but how you respond to "said" incidents and manage their effects could be the difference between success and failure for your event, particularly when it comes to the "big" incidents. It’s essential, then, that you’re prepared to manage them. And this means you need to put in place critical elements of effective response to accidents, systems failures, crowd issues and things like weather changes.
To help you prepare, we’ll run through some elements of incident management so you can be ready for anything that might “potentially” go wrong at your event. We’ll start with a little context and then cover:
- Incident Management Planning
- Chains of Command
- Relevant Training
- Communication Channels
- Mitigation Strategies
- Incident Response Evaluation Systems
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 (before you get too deep into reading this), in this article we’re concerned with incident response and management at events. Put simply, what you do when the risks you’ve identified in your risk management planning turn into incidents you need to deal with.
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.
When things go wrong at events
At this point you might be thinking, “What’s the likelihood of a major accident or terrorist attack at the little events and meetings I run? I’m not sure this is relevant to me.”
But, hang on, it doesn’t need to be that sort of incident to threaten the success of your event. Health and safety, and security risks are just some of the risks that any event planner should be prepared for and managing. Each event is different and can have a multitude of reasons things don’t go to plan. Let’s dive in to a couple of examples so you see what I mean...
In 2017 so many of the UK’s music festivals were failing that the Guardian newspaper was asking, “Why have so many music festivals gone wrong this year?” The answer isn’t a spate of major incidents but, rather, a mixture of poor planning, failure to mitigate risks like rain – a high probability risk in England – and inability to deal with event growth from year to year.
Indeed, it’s often the prosaic risks that produce incidents at events. Take the UFC 229 event showcasing the Conor McGregor and Khabib Nurmagomedov fight, where participant behavior triggered a series of events that the organizers' couldn't have prepared any better for. Or take a look at Eventbrite’s illustrative list of 12 times events went wrong which starts with a story about an effective response to a terrorist bomb in Marrakech. From there on things get more mundane as event planners relate stories of last minute cancellations by venues, failing to market events well and issues caused by overcrowding when the marketing was a little too good. I’m sure as an event professional you’ll have a few of your own stories that can relate to this list.
Preparing for incidents
Let’s assume you’ve answered all the essential event planning questions that will help you minimize risk. You’ve also developed a risk register and mitigation plan and decided a risk mitigation strategy for identified hazards, which you assessed and prioritized. This might look like:
- 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 to reduce the probability of incidents – you’ve fenced off the cliff that borders your outdoor festival venue.
- You’ve transferred some risks to other parties – you’ve partnered with the local lifeguards so that your triathlon swim leg will be monitored by professional lifeguards on jet skis.
But what if, for instance, your lifeguards somehow miss a slow swimmer struggling to finish...
The point being: It’s never going to be completely in your control. Things still do go wrong, even with good risk management practices.
And sometimes there’s a lot of drama and potential to damage your event’s brand in the seemingly mundane, like getting the right name in an envelope as The Oscars found out.
Dramatic or mundane scenario, you need to be able to manage the occurring incidents effectively. How? You need a plan for dealing with the incident that includes:
- Who needs to know?
- Who is needed to deal with the situation?
- What they need to do?
- And, crucially, how do you communicate to everybody involved in your response to an incident?
Incident management planning
So 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. The trick is to have a plan in place to achieve this response and manage an incident efficiently.
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:
- Ensure your team has the training it needs – What do event staff and volunteer team members need to be trained in to respond to incidents they may have to deal with?
- Ensure you have processes in place for responding to incidents – In disaster recovery they talk about “generic functions”. This might mean having a plan for evacuating people that applies whether the reason for evacuation is a forest fire, a flood or a hurricane. In event planning, it means processes like evacuating your venue, dealing with a power failure, or offering partial refunds regardless of what the specific incident is that requires these functions / actions. What are your procedures for common incident response challenges?
- Ensure you can effectively mobilize people and resources – How you’ll get the team members you need to the scene of the incident with the stuff and knowledge they need to respond to the incident?
- Ensure tasks are delegated appropriately – Who will respond to an incident? Do they know what they are responsible for?
- Ensure the information you need will be collected – What’s the process for assessing the incident and recording / communicating the information responders need?
- 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?
- Ensure your response is well coordinated – How will responders work together?
- 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.
Chains of command
It’s essential 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 systems failures within their area of responsibility. But, also being aware of who should make the decisions they’re not equipped to make. You might, for instance, allow security staff discretion around who they let enter a section of the venue, but require them to consult their manager, who will consult you, 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 here
“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.
Within your event team’s structure it’s important that your crew is trained on how to respond to incidents they‘re responsible for, appropriately.
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 you might specify that particular roles require things like first aid certificates.
Hint: This is where transferring risks often comes into play and you employ specialists like security experts or ensure that specialized skills are available by, for instance, having paramedics at the venue. It could also mean employing qualified electricians to help set up your venue and ensuring they’re on site to respond to any problems that arise with your power supply.
You might also consider putting your 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 another string to their bow so they’ll get something out of it too.
You’ll already know how good communication channels are an essential part of any successful event, and they’re equally as important for achieving good incident management.
Your chain of command (minus the salutes) 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 response to an incident might fail if your team doesn’t have the information they need in a timely manner.
- Maybe a team on a remote checkpoint on 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 know whether you need to rework the order your acts appear on stage because someone’s held up in traffic.
In lots of situations effective communication allows effective response. And we’re lucky that technology can overcome common issues like incompatible communication systems across teams and suppliers, and a need to update established information as things change during the event.
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.
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, though, that you can 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 proverbial dust settles it’s also very important you review your response and evaluate how effectively you managed the situations that arose.
- Were you able to respond as you planned?
- Did your response serve to minimize the impact of the problem or accident?
- Did the chain of command enable an efficient and effective response to the problem?
- Was the training of your team or the specialists you employed up to the challenges the incident provided for them?
- Did your communications system serve to 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 slightly different context that is equally applicable here. Writing in Policy and Society, Allan McConnell proposes a model for assessing crisis management that could apply 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 which have the effect of minimizing loss of life/damage, restoring order and achieving political goals, while attracting universal or near universal support and/no or virtually no opposition.
In the event context you’re looking to minimize loss, and get the event back on track toward its goals in a way that will please 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 the viability of your event.
How well is your event set up to respond to incidents associated with the risks you might face? Have you got a robust incident management plan specifying what your team will do when things go wrong? Is your chain of command established and appropriate? Do your team have the skills and training they need? Do you have the communications systems and technology you need? Are your planned mitigation practices practical and likely to be effective?
Talk to the Blerter team about how our app can help you manage incidents that you might face during your event. Or if you need a helping hand with your risk management plan download the following Risk Mitigation Guide.