Managing The Masses
Just about everyone agrees that training crowd managers is essential for safety in clubs and other assembly occupancies. But what that training should include—and how it should be conducted—is another matter.
NFPA Journal®, May/June 2010
By Fred Durso, Jr.
Vincent Quinterno was awakened by his ringing telephone. It was 11:30 p.m. on February 20, 2003. The caller was his boss with some nightmarish news: A massive fire had engulfed The Station, a small nightclub in West Warwick, Rhode Island. Quinterno, then a certified fire inspector with the Rhode Island State Fire Marshal’s Office, asked about the severity of the situation. "No questions," his boss told him. "Just get here."
Quinterno sped to the site, which he describes as a "war scene." Indoor use of pyrotechnics during a concert had started the fast-moving blaze, and many people had been trapped inside the unsprinklered building. Assigned to body recovery, Quinterno would later discover that three friends perished in the blaze, including a woman who had babysat his twin daughters. They were among the 100 people killed in the fire, which also injured more than 200. (For more on The Station and other nightclub fires, visit www.nfpa.org/nightclub.)
Crowd managers weren’t present at The Station. Nor had they been present at the E2 Nightclub in Chicago just days earlier, when a crowd crush killed 21 people. In the wake of those incidents, NFPA issued interim amendments to NFPA 101®, Life Safety Code®, and NFPA 5000®, Building Construction and Safety Code®, that took effect in 2003. The amendments addressed assembly occupancy main entrance egress width, sprinklers in certain assembly occupancies, and limitations on festival seating. The amendments also required the presence of a trained crowd manager for every 250 people in all assembly occupancies; previous editions of the codes required crowd managers only where the occupant load exceeded 1,000 persons.
While safety officials agree that crowd managers could play important roles in emergency situations, especially since overcrowding and other code violations remain concerns, they differ in their approaches to how those managers should be trained. In the absence of a standard that specifies how crowd manager training should be conducted and what it should include, existing training programs—including an upcoming web-based course from the International Association of Assembly Managers (IAAM)—take a variety of approaches to content, how that material is disseminated, and how long training lasts.
It’s that inconsistency that worries Paul Wertheimer, who runs Crowd Management Strategies, a crowd safety consulting service, and is a member of NFPA’s Life Safety Technical Committee on Assembly Occupancies. He appeared before the Rhode Island Special Legislative Safety Commission following The Station fire, and has been asked by the Florida State Fire Marshal’s Office to assist in the development of a crowd management training program. "There needs to be a standard that NFPA codes could reference and that building managers can apply," he says. "I fear the inconsistency because that means I could be safe in Miami Beach but not in Chicago," he says. Wertheimer says he wants to see a crowd management standard to ensure that advances in crowd safety are not muddled, misunderstood, or neutralized. "This is a great opportunity to have a consistent approach across the country."
Chris Dubay, vice president of Codes & Standards at NFPA, says that while NFPA doesn’t endorse a specific crowd management program, it nevertheless supports such training through the specific provisions of its codes. "NFPA 101 correctly identifies that crowd managers are a necessary part of the overall life-safety protection package for assembly occupancies," Dubay says. "Training and certification of crowd managers plays an important role to help ensure that the required crowd managers are well prepared."
After The Station fire, Quinterno decided to start a crowd management training program for Rhode Island. He modified an existing program after becoming his division’s fire safety training officer, and in 2007 he began offering his four-hour training session to staff from nightclubs, hotels, and colleges free of charge; most of the classes are held in the State Fire Marshal’s office in Providence. Graduates receive a crowd management license indicating completion of the program, valid for two years, and an assembly occupancy self-inspection checklist that they must complete during every shift. This year, Rhode Island’s Fire Safety Code Board of Appeal and Review began requiring representatives from other types of occupancies, including bed and breakfasts, to attend Quinterno’s program, which has also caught the interest of officials in New Hampshire and Florida.
Few jurisdictions around the country have access to crowd management training, however, which is why a Web-based course recently developed by fire officials in Maryland is attracting widespread attention. "Crowd Management: What You Need To Know," a free, 30-minute program launched by the Office of the State Fire Marshal in 2008, offers a succinct overview of crowd manager duties and responsibilities and is mandatory for the state’s bars, nightclubs, and universities. The general nature of the material, combined with its free, online accessibility, have helped it draw more than 13,000 participants from across the country. "It’s simple and user-friendly," says Dennis Gentzel, chief fire protection engineer with Maryland’s fire marshal’s office, who oversees the program. "It’s not intended to make someone a fire inspector, but it is intended to make someone aware of fire safety, crowd management, and keeping egresses clear."
IAAM, which addresses life safety at larger venues, including auditoriums and stadiums, has developed an online course that takes Maryland’s program a step further. For $15, crowd managers get access to a four-hour standardized program, designed for crowd management trainees anywhere in the country. (Among the program’s selling points: participants can leave it at any time while the course is in progress, and pick up where they left off when they return; and once participants are certified, they can return to the site at no additional charge for refreshers on an array of subjects.) Following the online course, participants must complete a two-hour venue-specific orientation given by their workplace supervisors to understand the building’s layout and the facility’s emergency-response and evacuation plans. "You’ll know how to locate the exits, the protocols of the building, where safe havens are, and how announcements are made," Harold Hansen, IAAM’s director of life safety and security, says of the on-site component. All participants are required to be retrained every three years. IAAM expects to debut the course this summer, and has a crowd manager supervisor training program in the works, according to Hansen, who also sits on NFPA’s Life Safety Technical Committee on Assembly Occupancies.
Even with a standardized crowd manager training curriculum, some jurisdictions may continue to develop their own programs. "We’re driven by the requirements of our state-based regulatory system, and it’s important that the training program we use mirrors those requirements," says Stephen Coan, State Fire Marshal for Massachusetts, which is in the process of developing an online crowd management training program of its own. The proposed program would link the state’s annual liquor license renewal process to assembly occupancy requirements, including the presence of a trained crowd manager; outstanding code violations, including the absence of a crowd manager, would prevent establishments from renewing their liquor license.
Wertheimer also questions the benefit of training programs of less than eight hours. "How can an instructor offer substantive content in crowd dynamics, case studies, local standards, life safety techniques, skills practice time, and testing in less than that?" he asks. "If this were the case, fire and law enforcement academies could graduate students in days, not months."
While program developers debate training strategies, most stakeholders agree that at least some kind of training is essential—and in the same breath they acknowledge the shortcomings of code enforcement in nightclubs and similar venues, where overcrowding and blocked exits remain significant problems. "I think [jurisdictions] have tried to do a good job with the limited staff that’s available [to conduct inspections]," Coan says, echoing other officials interviewed for this story. "But there are some constraints with the economic climate we’re in."
Michael Sweeney, chief of investigations at Rhode Island’s State Fire Marshal’s Office, says the state’s crowd manager training program and increased inspections at assembly occupancies has helped address some of those compliance issues. In addition, the state’s district court was granted the authority to hear fire code violations a few years after The Station fire. Violators who are cited have 30 days to apply to the state’s Fire Board of Appeals, at which point they are given a specific amount of time to come into compliance. Sweeney says as long as businesses show a "good faith effort" to fix the issues, his office will work with them until they are in compliance. Establishments not cooperating, he adds, will face the judge, who in the past has revoked liquor licenses or can order jail time. "It’s not our job to put businesses out of business," Sweeney says. "We go out of our way to try to accommodate people. But sometimes the court [system] seems to be the only way to get their attention."
Though it’s too soon to identify the long-term effects of such training programs, Wertheimer cautions that periodic tragedies like The Station don’t necessarily change the behavior of the owners and managers of assembly occupancies such as clubs—or of the people who frequent them. "Anybody who tells you that things are better since E2 and The Station are the same people that told you things were great before E2 and The Station," he says. "Clubs still try to get away with the same compromises in safety until they’re caught. It’s a cat-and-mouse game."
Fred Durso, Jr. is staff writer for NFPA Journal.