Several years ago, during the National FFA Organization’s annual convention in Indianapolis, event staff found themselves dealing with a personal-injury crisis, and “we had to be very reactionary,” said Mandy Hazlett, the organization’s associate director of convention and events.
“We realized that, internally, we didn’t have a well-laid-out structure or plan, if something were to happen, to deal with the safety and protection for our attendees and also for the safety of our staff.”
That prompted Hazlett and her team to develop a crisis management plan, one that they’ve spent the past several years honing and updating with lessons learned after each event.
The FFA’s management plan is now used “for every single meeting and conference we have that’s scalable for every meeting we have,” whether it’s the annual convention with 68,000 attendees or one of the FFA’s 15 or so smaller conferences throughout the year.
A crisis management plan doesn’t prepare for every possible emergency; it prepares people to respond in a way that will help protect the life, safety and security of event attendees.
Assess the Risks
Any crisis management plan should first consider location, from the city to the venue. If planners can afford it, they should hire a consultant to do a risk analysis. And if they can’t afford it, they need to do their best on their own.
“From a risk analysis standpoint, the more you know, the better off you’re going to be,” said Bob Mellinger, founder and CEO of Attainium, an Arizona-based business continuity planning and management firm that created Event-Aware, a crisis management mobile app for meetings and events.
Consider the risks of meeting in Miami during hurricane season or Minneapolis in wintertime. Planners should also know what is going on in the city during their conference: Is there another major convention or a political rally? Are there any other potential disruptors?
When it comes to the venue, some have been used so much “they are just good at what they do, so you don’t need to site-survey them,” he said. If you’re considering a smaller venue that you haven’t used before, asking others about their experience or conducting a site survey with an eye on emergency planning is wise.
Connect and Communicate
Meeting planners should get all the relevant agencies at the table: police, fire, emergency medical services, public works, and even homeland security and area hospitals for large events.
Building relationships with those agencies, even if it’s just a quick meet-and-greet, goes a long way. You know who to contact, and they know you.
IEEE provides an event emergency action planning template. The organization recommends that every crisis management plan should include, at the bare minimum, emergency response procedures for immediate response, such as evacuating the meeting space and venue, and extended response, such as sheltering in place, setting up a command center and evacuating meeting participants from the city or country.
Some of that will be specific to the venue, which should take precedence. Hazlett pointed out that the FFA emergency plan does not trump any emergency or evacuation plans for the host hotel or event venue — “ours is just folded in.”
Any plan should also include maps and information about the meeting venue, with emergency exits and who to call within the facility should an emergency arise. That includes knowing the locations of the first-aid room, the safety shelters and the automated external defibrillator devices.
There should be contact lists for key staff of the planner’s organization, facility, destination and vendors, as well as emergency service providers, according to IEEE.
The FFA even ensures planning and program staff know where the nearest hospitals and drug stores are located.
The biggest concern at any event is always medical, said Greg Shaffer, founder of Shaffer Security Group, a global security, risk management and tactical training firm based in Dallas.
“You’ll have 1,000 medical incidents before you have one violent incident,” he said. “A medical incident is by far your greatest vulnerability.”
Know Your Role
Certain issues will be the sole responsibility of the venue. But the rest is a matter of assigning roles and communicating responsibilities, like knowing who is authorized to speak to the media, who will make sure attendees get back to their hotel, who is in charge of making contact with family and relatives back home, who is responsible for the rest of the group that’s still there and who will ensure that attendees are picked up at the airport.
The FFA has a call tree, so if a crisis arises, staff knows whom to call back in headquarters to start the plan of action, from public relations to emergency management for travel.
“One phone call kicks the whole thing into gear,” Hazlett said.
‘Train the plan’
Making a plan and assigning responsibilities is all fine and good, but then “they put it in a binder on the bookshelf; most people don’t train the plan,” Shaffer said.
Tabletop exercises are necessary to make sure the plan works when disaster strikes. Gather representatives from your organization and from relevant agencies to role-play various scenarios, whether it’s an evacuation, an injury, a weather-related event or a lock-in situation.
Tabletop exercises reinforce that everybody knows what piece of the plan they own, how to execute it and who to communicate with.
Safety and Security
Planners should always connect with the head of security at their host hotel or venue, but they often bring in security a month or a few days before an event, when it’s “too little, too late.” Bringing in the security team early will help ensure the safety of an event and “can save you a lot of headaches,” Shaffer said.
Controlled access and credentialing is critical, meaning you “identify who is supposed to be there and only allowing those people to enter,” he said. Controlling access to the venue and having solid credentialing procedures for attendees and vendors means “you’ll have a good, safe event.”
Even then, planners should always prepare for an active-shooter situation. Shaffer is a proponent of what he calls “intervention capable response” — having armed security on-site. If a shooter comes in, 50 unarmed security guards are “going to be doing the same as everyone else: running and hiding.”
FFA staff have even gone through active-shooter training with representatives from the state police.
Events that feature big-name celebrities or high-profile politicians will likely have their own security service and requirements that planners will need to accommodate.
Debriefing after an event is an important but often overlooked step, Mellinger said. Debriefing is the only way to make sure the plan worked and to make it better for the next event, something Hazlett has experienced firsthand.
“There’s something that changes with every event, and you learn a new lesson every time,” she said.
Any plan is a guide for how to respond in a crisis situation. Sitting down to assess after the event means you can revise and finesse the plan, which will then improve any future crisis response.
“You take that information and feed it back into the next ‘before,’” Mellinger said. “It’s a circle.”