How to Prevent a Crowd Crush

Crowd crush occurs when a large, high density crowd becomes trapped or bottlenecked in a confined space, resulting in personal injury or death. It’s due to a failure in design and management. Thus, when designing an assembly space, it’s important to accompany a safe layout with a narrative that’s cognizant of the area’s intended use. When a well thought out design is combined with proper protocol, the chance of a crowd crush is drastically reduced.

Most crowd fatalities are a result of compressive asphyxiation, not trampling. Victims are unable to breath due to external pressure from the crowd as people push and lean against each other. Such forces have been recorded to bend steel, tear clothing and lift people off the ground. Larger crowds create greater violence as individual forces become stacked to create a domino effect. Per Fruin, there are three categories of situations that have resulted in crowd fatalities:

1. Critical occupancy,
2. Flight response, and
3. Craze.

Critical occupancy is the gradual accumulation and overloading of a pedestrian space. An incidence of critical occupancy occurred on April 15, 1989, at Hillsborough Stadium in Sheffield, England. A large crowd showed up for a soccer match between Liverpool and Nottingham Forest. Before the game, police opened the stadium’s gates to alleviate a back-up of fans outside the venue. The stadium’s terrace sections were already filled when the oncoming wave of pedestrians entered. The surge of people trapped fans against barriers, killing a total of 96 and injuring 400.

Flight response occurs when people flee from a real threat, such as a fire. It also occurs when people flee from a perceived threat, such as a loud noise mistaken for gunfire. In New England, one of the most well known instances of flight response is the Station Nightclub fire. It occurred on February 20, 2003, in West Warwick, Rhode Island. The heavy metal band “Great White” was performing when pyrotechnics ignited the soundproofing behind their stage. The nightclub contained a hazardous mix of building contents and was not protected by an automatic sprinkler system. Therefore, the fire spread at a rapid pace, engulfing the facility in a matter of minutes. Once the danger was realized, occupants ran to the main entrance where they plugged up the entryway. This incident resulted in the death of 100 people. An additional 180 were injured.

A craze is a competitive rush to obtain some high-valued objective. People have created a craze during many situations. Including, but not limited to, the following:

1. Religious movements,
2. Starving victims receiving food,
3. Patrons entering a store, and
4. Fans gaining access to celebrities.

In the movie “Jingle All the Way”, Arnold Schwarzenegger plays a father who desperately tries to buy his son a sold-out action figure. It mocks real world antics as parents gather at a department store and climb over each other for the chance to obtain the season’s hottest toy. The movie humorously displays incidents of craze. However, in life, these situations are serious. On November 28, 2008, in Valley Stream, New York, a Black Friday crowd killed a man as people pushed their way into a Walmart. The incident is highly criticized as one that could have been prevented with proper crowd control. Since 2008, Walmart has taken steps to reduce the likely hood of further incidents. Actions have included, but are not limited to, the following:

1. Creating a crowd management plan,
2. Coordinating with local authorities,
3. Increasing the presence of security/crowd management personnel, and
4. Monitoring occupant loads.

The previously mentioned incidents occurred in commonplace locations. Therefore, it’s valuable for everyone to know how to react during an emergency. An extensive review of preventative techniques is outside the scope of this article. However, the most important thing a person can do is be aware of their surroundings. During a crowd crush, people don’t intend to harm others. There’s usually a lack of front-to-back communication in which the back of the crowd doesn’t understand that the front of the crowd is in trouble. Furthermore, when entering a place of assembly, make it a habit to locate the nearest exits. Most people are programmed to run out the same door they came in. This leads to bottlenecking and plugging of exits. Evacuations are much more efficient when people disperse through multiple egress points, as intended by general building design.

To avoid crowd fatalities, the Life Safety Code (NFPA 101-2015) requires a life safety evaluation be performed when the occupant load of an assembly occupancy exceeds 6,000 people or when festival seating (i.e., a form of general admission) is used for more than 250 people. A life safety evaluation includes an in-depth assessment of building systems and facility management. This is great, but examples of crowd crush have occurred in structures that do not fall under the previously mentioned categories. Therefore, it’s imperative that all assemblies be reviewed for fire and life safety. The scope of each review should be appropriate for each individual facility.

In closing, when designing an assembly space, it’s important to accompany a safe layout with proper protocol. These combine to reduce the likely hood of a crowd crush. As populations grow and crowds become larger, it will become increasingly important to design spaces in accordance with model codes. These codes continuously evolve to include lessons of the past and present the most recent understandings of fire and life safety design.

Written By: Mark R. Richards, PE

1. Fruin, John J. “Techniques of Crowd Management” Fire Protection Handbook, Twentieth Edition. Arthur E. Cote. Quincy: National Fire Protection Association, 2008. 4-94. Print.

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