Dear Event Doctor:
I saw you in the “60 Minutes Sports” story on the Super Bowl in New Orleans and was struck by how calm you were when the lights went out during the game. How do you prepare for something like that, and how did you keep your event staff so calm?
—Grace Under Pressure
Col. Murphy was right, and more than 110 million American television viewers witnessed the proof in real-time. Anything that can go wrong will go wrong and often at the worst possible moment. I suppose we were lucky that “60 Minutes Sports” was documenting the behind-the-scenes world of Super Bowl, and their crew was inside our control room at the precise moment the lights went out. If I had otherwise suggested that things were very calm and professional up there while our event team assessed the situation and acted to restore power, I’m sure you would have had your doubts. I wouldn’t blame you. But, trust me when I tell you that we weren’t acting for the television cameras. We completely forgot they were there.
There were far more important things to do: assess the cause of the failure; communicate with the fans; get the power restored; and get the game restarted.
With a broad range of unexpected possibilities for disaster at or near any event, you can’t have a plan for each and every potential occurrence. It is certainly wise, however, to have a plan for every likely possibility that is peculiar to your particular event. Do you have multiple ways to get people into the venue if one or more routes or gates become unusable? Do you have a cancellation plan? An evacuation and reassembly plan? A severe weather contingency plan? Do you have designated spokespeople who will communicate with fans or the media?
There are several essential truths to any event, whether it’s a monster like Super Bowl or a high school football game. My staff is familiar with the mantra “communicate or die!” They know that having a plan is important, but unless everyone responsible for executing it knows what it is, then it’s just an academic exercise. We have a host of plans and communication mechanisms for a full or partial evacuation, severe weather delays and rerouting motor traffic and pedestrian approaches, among others.
We also have to build and manage a team we can trust to work together to put these plans into effect or handle the unexpected when it arises. Because Super Bowl is such a large event that travels from city to city—and there are dozens of people in responsible roles who have never worked together before—we conduct a simulation drill about 10 days before game day. We close the door and shut off our phones while a moderator familiar with the event plan throws emergency scenarios at us. We have to work together to respond or solve them in real-time. The amount of great intelligence we have amassed over the time we’ve been doing this has been staggering, and a lot of our emergency preparedness planning has been inspired by the situations that have been presented during those simulations. Just as importantly, the simulation builds respect and teamwork among a group of event and public safety professionals who have not worked together before. At the end of the simulation, everyone knows exactly what each person on the leadership team brings to the party.
So, when power to the Mercedes-Benz Superdome was interrupted, we approached the actual crisis the same way we did the simulated ones. We were calm because that scenario is what we drill for. Everyone immediately went into their assigned roles for managing an incident, and once it was determined that the issue was a simple failure on one of the two major feeder cables coming into the dome, crews were rapidly deployed to begin the work to restore the flow of electricity. We kept the fans at the dome informed through an emergency public address system, social media and a ticket-holder texting system. That way, the 70,000 people in the stands could be as calm and confident as we were that the game would again be underway after power was restored.
What can every event organizer and host facility take from this saga? Expect the unexpected, have an incident response plan, develop a team that will work together to solve problems when they happen and make certain everyone understands their role. If possible, rehearse enacting the plan. Above all, ensure that you have a way to communicate quickly and effectively with your event’s participants and fans. Even in small venues, a public address system on its own power source beats bullhorns and shouting event staff every time. Write a series of carefully worded messages or easily modified templates for the PA announcer to use in case of various emergencies to reduce the time between determining the course of action and delivering the message to the audience.
A special note to those who lead event teams: The tone of each response will be set by you and your senior event staff. A calm, professional demeanor is contagious. It will inspire those around you to approach challenges in the same way. A cool and confident staff will also help to keep your fans calm in uncertain, evolving situations.
This first appeared in Sports Travel Magazine and appears here courtesy of SCHNEIDER PUBLISHING COMPANY, INC.