Understanding Crowd Dynamics and Psychology for Better Emergency Response

– Executive Summary

Crowd crush events continue to happen around the world as large crowds meet at sporting events, entertainment venues, and religious gatherings. The most recent crowd crush in the United States was at the November 5, 2021, Astroworld music festival, which resulted in nine deaths—calling into question safety procedures at major entertainment venues.[1] Internationally, the October 29, 2022, Itaewon disaster, in a Seoul, South Korea, entertainment district, killed 158 people, and in April 30, 2021, in Mt. Meron, Israel, 45 perished during the annual pilgrimage to the Tomb of Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai. One report showed that over a decade (1992–2022), 262 people died and 66,787 people were injured in outdoor music festivals worldwide.[2] The United States continues to be at risk for crowd crush incidents as people attend large events in ever greater numbers. It is estimated that over 30 million people attend music concerts every year.[3] In 2019, it was reported that 150 million people attended sporting events in North America.[4]

This thesis asked how patterns of crowd dynamics and behavior might be determined and used in the planning and response to future events by fire departments and emergency responders. Using qualitative research methods, this thesis investigated patterns in crowd dynamics and behavior and their application in emergency response, with case studies of crowd crushes with extensive injuries at large venues, beginning with the 1989 Hillsborough tragedy. A analysis of the tenets of crowd dynamics and behavior was used to establish the basic terminology and accepted concepts in these fields. This analysis involved reviewing public reports and after-action reviews of the incidents, which provided valuable insight into both the beneficial and harmful actions of responders.

Understanding crowd behavior and its underlying psychological elements is another important aspect for emergency responders in crowd-related disasters. In crushing incidents, a series of events or crowd behaviors lead up to the accident. Outside influences and group perceptions might spur a group to move en masse, causing possible injuries. The threat of danger or a perceived loss, natural or human-made, can cause a fear reaction in the group, resulting in crowd movement that creates the conditions for crushing injuries. Such aspects of crowd psychology are important to first responders during emergencies.

This thesis offered the following recommendations.

First, fire departments should take the lead in crowd safety. Fire departments and EMS agencies have a primary responsibility in life safety. They provide EMS support in the field and are responsible for transporting the injured to hospitals.

Second, fire department and EMS personnel should receive awareness-level crowd safety training. Specifically, crowd management courses and certifications should be a part of the fire department’s training process, and recruits should encounter this material in their initial training. Members of the fire service should develop simple warning signs to alert personnel to an imminent crowd crush. Such guidance and associated firefighting orders have proven successful in wildland firefighting and can be applied to crowd dynamics, too.[5]

Third, fire departments should leverage emerging technologies. Emerging technologies have shown promise in detecting dangerous crowd dynamics more rapidly and alerting crowd managers and first responders to risks before they turn into tragedy. Developing crowd monitoring systems that can scrutinize real-time crowd conditions to evaluate crowd dynamics—analyzing crowd density, movement, and behavior—will prove beneficial in preventing crowd crush in the first place.[6] Additionally, machine learning and automatic speech recognition software can assist dispatch centers as keywords and phrases used by callers may indicate a crowd crush is imminent.

[1] Jack Denton, “Yes, the Dangerous Crowd Crush at Astroworld Was Probably Preventable,” Vice, November 9, 2021, https://www.vice.com/en/article/bvnx7a/the-dangerous-crowd-crush-at-astroworld-was-probably-preventable.

[2] Aldo Raineri, “The Causes and Prevention of Serious Crowd Injury and Fatalities at Outdoor Music Festivals,” in Proceedings of the SIA 12th Annual Occupational Health and Safety VISIONS Conference (Brisbane: Safety Institute of Australia, 2005), 1–14, https://doi.org/10.13140/2.1.3036.0005.

[3] Joe Lynch, “Check Out These Surprising Stats about U.S. Music Festivals,” Billboard, April 22, 2015, https://www.billboard.com/culture/events/music-festival-statistics-graphic-6539009/.

[4] U.S. Travel Association, “The Impact of Sports on the Travel Industry” (Washington, DC: U.S. Travel Association, 2019), https://www.ustravel.org/system/files/media_root/document/2019_Sports-Travel_07.11.19.pdf.

[5] “18 Watch Out Situations, PMS 118,” National Wildfire Coordinating Group, January 25, 2023, https://www.nwcg.gov/publications/pms118.

[6] Victoria Hutchison, “Crowd Source,” NFPA Journal, August 2020, https://www.nfpa.org/News-and-Research/Publications-and-media/NFPA-Journal/2020/July-August-2020/Features/Crowd-Control.

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