Crowd Science: Run, Hide, Tell

Crowd Science
People run down Oxford Street, London, Britain November 24, 2017. REUTERS/Simon Dawson

By Prof Keith Still*

The recent crowd reaction to an incident at Oxford Circus Underground station highlights the escalating risks to crowds in places of public assembly. Namely, the crowds are reacting to incidents (real or perceived) very differently to how they reacted a few years ago.

Do you remember school, we were all drilled for evacuation practise? You line up, walk (DO NOT RUN) to the nearest exit. Now the message is very different. The advice is now to RUN.

It is a mixed message, we were trained from a very young age to WALK (don’t panic) in an emergency and are now being told the opposite.

The problem is, when people start running in crowds, the risks of serious injury from trips, slips and falls increases significantly. So, running from a perceived risk is far more dangerous than walking.

Managing places of public assembly.

One of many incidents over the years, where the crowds over reacted in public spaces resulting in serious injuries was Turin (Feb 2017) where 1,500 people were injured and 1 died as a result of a crowd running from a perceived threat.

This presents a major challenge for crowd management, the combination of the increasing threat and the increasing risk of crowds over reacting to incidents. Couple this to the increasing investment in infrastructure, such as hostile vehicle mitigation (HVM) and we can see the classic “arms race” model (Games Theory).

HMV can increase the awareness of the potential threat to the crowd, and make them more likely to over react to false alarms. HMV[1],[2] can then be a barrier to crowds running from perceived threats and result in serious injury due to the blocked/restricted exits.

This needs to be balanced against the very real threat of attacks (Vegas, Barcelona, Nice, Manchester Arena) where crowds are seen as a legitimate target. It is a formidable challenge to protect places of public assembly. Which means increased security, leading to increase awareness of potential threats and hence the likelihood of crowds over reacting even more problematic.

Recent incidents of crowd being hurt due to false alarms (running from a perceived threat) can result in law suits, I’m currently an expert witness for MGM Grand in Las Vegas following injury of crowds running from perceived threats following a false alarm similar to the incident in Oxford Circus.

Crowd Science

Over the last 28 years, since the Hillsborough incident where 96 died and over 400 were injured, our focus on crowd safety has changed focus. Where we used to be focussed on just increasing crowd safety measures, now we focus on how to balance safety with security, how to increase the risk analysis and risk management for public spaces.

The reliance on systems, such as increasing security, can create targets. For example, MCG – Melbourne and a WWE event in Austin, Texas both increased security at events which resulted in dangerous overcrowding in the queueing spaces, which are soft/vulnerable targets, hence increasing the risk of attack.

We see the “arms race” escalating, more attacks, more mitigation measures being deployed, softer targets, being created more crowd frustrations at getting in/out of places of public assembly, leading to an increased awareness of the threats, which increases the likelihood of anxiety/overreacting to perceived threats. We see the reporting of incidents on social media, such as celebrities live tweeting to millions of followers further amplifying the situation.

So, how do we address this spiral of escalating problems? Understanding crowd behaviour in normal and emergency situations is an essential element that is often undervalued in favour of adding infrastructure and additional security measures. Dynamic risk analysis techniques such as risk and congestion mapping, using decision support tools (an application of games theory), the DIM-ICE risk analysis and RAMP Analysis (routes, areas, movement, profile/people) are all tools we developed to address these issues and we teach these over a two day short course, then apply these to client sites on the third day.

We run these courses for major events, sports venues, places of public assembly, transport systems and major events in public spaces around the world[3]. Events such as the Royal Wedding, Liverpool International Music Festival, London New Year Events, Marathons (Dublin, New York, Berlin and Chicago) and major sporting venues are just a few of the public spaces we have advised on balancing crowd safety, crowd risk analysis and crowd security.

There are answers

We can help, although there are no instant answers to the evolving problem, we run short course on client sites around the world, focussing on applying a wide range of methods to specific site issues.

For further information contact me at MMU where we can assist you with further information, international documents and best practices, workshops and short courses, safety and risk analysis techniques, and real-time evacuation analysis tools. We are currently developing an online versions of our short course (see for further information).





*Keith Still is Professor of Crowd Science at Manchester Metropolitan University and a Fellow of the Institute of Place Management.

He can be reached at Room RG10. Righton Building, Cavendish Street. Manchester. M15 6BG, UK