January has brought a vivid reminder that special events planners are often the first line of defense in emergencies. Last week started with a woman having chest pains and ended with another having a seizure. This week, a guest’s parking lot fall required six stitches and a colleague’s office space heater caught on fire. The unexpected is always lurking just around the corner. In December, our region was raked by tornadoes. (Who would ever anticipate tornadoes in December?) As events planners, it is imperative that we know what to do when the unforeseen happens.
Now is the perfect time to renew staff training in first aid and other emergency procedures. And don’t forget to include student workers, members of your ambassador corps, and volunteers.
Get certified in first aid, CPR, and AED (automated external defibrillator) use. Many schools offer American Red Cross training through their risk management programs. Certification is good for two years. We attend as a group because it helps reinforce instruction. Over the years I’ve experienced emergencies small and large ranging from a man who smashed his finger in a car door to finding an event participant unconscious in a parking lot on an August afternoon, a victim of heat stroke.
Know severe weather procedures. Event staff should know where shelters are in each venue. Plan how you will direct participants to them. Once, while we were under a tornado warning, our audience of foreign visitors who had no understanding of the risk, wanted to go outside to watch since they had never seen a tornado. Fortunately, a well-trained special events staffer had a script that could be read from the podium that explained the danger. Her clear instructions about what to do kept the curious visitors inside and safe.
A recent severe weather drill exposed a serious flaw in a new building’s emergency plan: While the plan looked good on paper, the spaces that were designated as shelters are too small and some are behind locked doors. Without an emergency practice, we would not have discovered this until too late. A new plan has since been drafted.
Hold fire drills. Practice with your campus safety office to ensure everyone knows how to evacuate and what to do once that happens. Where do people meet? How do you account for everyone? Evidence shows that in an emergency people will try to exit through the door they entered. Unfortunately, this may not be safe or accessible. Be certain staff know alternative ways out.
Review Your Set-ups. Consult with emergency management personnel such as your campus safety office or risk manager to review venue set ups with an eye toward ensuring the arrangement of chairs, stages, catering, displays, and gear is not an impediment to people being able to evacuate.
Know the physical address of each venue. College campuses can be confusing places in terms of way finding. It is imperative that event staff know how to assist emergency responders in locating the building. Often, GPS directs to a generic address for the entire campus. This will delay response. We issue lanyards with the address of the buildings we are using so event staff need only read this information from the back of the card. If the campus map posted on your web site uses building numbers, it also helpful to provide this information when calling 911.
Meet with campus safety to discuss emergency procedures. Always keep them posted on large events and identify concerns in advance. This is especially important when hosting visiting dignitaries, elected officials, celebrities, or a speaker or group that might attract controversy. Make a plan for various scenarios and keep it up-to-date. Be certain all staff are aware of what has been decided.
Don’t forgot the big ones. Be certain that you have emergency plans for major gatherings such as athletics contests and commencement. Large audiences and in some cases, non-campus venues, demand emergency planning on a much bigger scale, a drill that is often overlooked because it involves coordination with multiple law enforcement agencies, emergency responders, facilities personnel, and events planners.
Empower Staff to Respond. No one should ever wonder if it’s ok to call 9-1-1. Let your staff and volunteers know that they don’t need to check with someone else before calling for help. Better to call and not need it, than waste critical minutes in an emergency. For large events, we hold a mandatory emergency briefing with staff and volunteers right before doors open. We point out all exits, be certain everyone knows the facility’s address, and discuss possible disruptions such as impending bad weather. Most importantly, we tell people that if they think a situation is an emergency, it is and we empower them to take the appropriate steps to get help.