6 keys to special-event planning

Fire department leaders need to be involved early and deeply with special event planning

By Rick Markley

At this year's Fire Rescue International Chief Billy Hayes is one of three presenters at the session, When a Special Event Attracts More than Just Your Neighborhood. In it, he explains how the city of Gulf Shores, Ala., prepares for the thousands of attendees who flock to this Gulf Coast resort for major special events every year, and how this planning transcends into preparation for large-scale emergency events.

I sat down with Chief Hayes to talk about what fire department leaders need to know when planning for either reoccurring or one-time large events.

How critical is it for fire departments to be at the planning table for large events?It is absolutely imperative for the fire department to be at any type of large-event planning. If anything goes wrong, the fire department is going to be the responders coming into it.

About Billy Hayes

Chief Billy Hayes is the vice president of marketing, outreach, and admissions for Columbia Southern University in Orange Beach, Ala. where he also serves as a faculty instructor with the Alan Brunacini Fire-Rescue Leadership Institute. Previously, he served as the Director of Community Affairs for the District of Columbia Fire and EMS Department and as Fire Chief in Riverdale, Ga. He now volunteers and serves as the Public Information Officer for Gulf Shores Fire Rescue.

He has participated in various planning phases of the 1996 Olympic Games in Atlanta, and President Barack Obama's inauguration in Washington, D.C. His intrigue to special event planning was recently heightened through his volunteerism with Gulf Shores Fire Rescue, which is a small coastal community that over the last few years has hosted several large-scale events such as Hangout Music Fest attracting 35,000 people, National Shrimp Fest hosting 80,000 people, and numerous other concerts and events that fluctuate in size by the thousands, with resources of a 50+ member fire department.

Why not be on the front end where you have all of the information and intelligence? When you do have that emergency, you are already prepared as to how you are going to respond, your routes going into and out of the event, and the staging areas.

It is also important to know what the other agencies are doing. When you have a large event, the fire department is not the only player at the table. If you are not there on the front end, there are going to be things happening that you are not engaged with that's going to make it more difficult to do your job.

Is it worth owning specialty equipment if you have only one or two events per year?
It goes back to being at the planning table. The Hangout Music Fest in Gulf Shores is only one large event that the sponsors do a year; they want it to be successful. They want to have that event in subsequent years. If something goes wrong, people are going to hear about that and won't show up.

When it is about money, they want everything to go right. So let's go back to the planning table. If you are there on the front end, you can say that there is no way you can extract patients out of a crowd of about 30,000 people with an ambulance; we are going to need some ATVs or Gators.

When those discussions begin, that's when you have cooperation between businesses, law enforcement and emergency management. You'll be able to get those vehicles. It doesn't necessarily mean you have to buy them or pay for them; maybe they are leased.

The last thing you want is to come in two days before the event and start laying out this grand plan that the fire department needs and everybody is looking around saying, 'we don't have the money to do that now.'

So yes, it is worth having them if you can rent or lease them, but consider how you are going to be able to use them later on. There are plenty of grants you can seek.

How do you ensure you have enough human and equipment resources for an event plus normal call volume?
Immediately following the BP oil spill Jimmy Buffet came down and did a benefit concert, then Bon Jovi and Brad Paisley came right behind that and did another one on the beach. Massive crowds showed up.

It overwhelmed Gulf Shores Fire because of the number of residents we have in the off season doesn't support having as many personnel. You have to figure out how to make due with the resources you have.

Be early at the planning table, have mutual-aid agreements, and have great relationships with your surrounding departments. For organizations our size, that's how you ensure that you have enough resources.  

Do you benchmark other events from around the country?
If you don't pay attention to what is going on around the country with other events you are waiting to repeat history, and history will repeat itself.
You can look at the Indiana stage collapse and the early warnings that weren't really paid attention to. The stage itself wasn't put up the correct way, and no one had gone in and inspected that.

It is just like firefighter line of duty deaths. We need to look at NIOSH reports and case studies to see what went wrong to adjust how we operate. You can take any NIOSH report or case study and find one that will apply exactly to your organization.

It is not just the fire department. Every organization at the planning table, has to look at that same catastrophe, that same lesson learned. If one of the departments lets another department down, it is going to be a systemic, catastrophic failure.

What are the most important lessons you've learned?
In the 1996 Olympics I was one of the fire marshals assigned to one of the venues. I realized how long it took to make that event go off the way it did.

Certainly when you have something go wrong, like the Centennial Park bombing, you've got to be ready to respond to it. There were things that we were ready for on the front end. You go back to the first Centennial Park bomb, then the secondary bombings at the abortion clinic and at the alternative lounge. We were prepared for those secondary devices after that first one.

With our pre-event planning, we realized that things will go wrong.

When I was in Washington D.C. for President Obama's inauguration, we went through major planning. With the first African-American president, that this was going to be one of the largest inaugurations ever. I recall going to several meetings at the Pentagon to talk about military procedures that were coming in.

We had a cache of 25 ambulances staged at various points around the district on mutual-aid agreement because of the cold and fatigue and with crowds of over 2 million people at the Washington Mall.

Being part of the planning early on is the first lesson you have to walk away with.

The second is that you have to communicate what your expectations are to make sure that the needs for your organization to do its job are addressed early on. Building relationships with the private sector is important as well.

You need planning, planning, planning and then more planning. After that, you have to go back and do a lessons learned from the event, a critique. Get all of the same people back at the table again.

The last thing you want to do is when the event is over with, walk away and don't think about it again. You have to be ready for that next event to come to your small town.

My suggestion is you have somebody independent come in and facilitate that critique. If you have your incident commander facilitate it, they already have a biased opinion of how it went. If the incident commander is on the law enforcement side they are going to focus more on law. You want somebody independent who can read the after-action report and help accomplish an information exchange and lessons learned. You need a facilitator to keep moving that forward and then have outcomes.

How important is your relationship with other municipal departments?
You are going to depend on one another. You have to have time to plan, know how each other works and you understand each other's systems.

If you can do it on an event that is not an emergency, imagine how well you can do in an emergency, with the communications and identifying who's in charge, who's the contact person and what the emergency plan is going to be. Special events are practice for when a real emergency occurs.

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