Thursday, November 19, 2009

An afternoon to remember

I don't think that many people are unaware of the events of last Saturday, when what should have been a cracking pop concert went sour within minutes as the crowd outside the open air venue surged against barriers, which were swiftly pulled away by the alert security staff to allow the crowd pressure to be released. The event had to be cancelled and 60 people were reported as injured, with 4 taken to hospital and 1 held with a broken pelvis.
There are things that concern me about this.
Firstly, whether appropriate risk assessments were carried out when parts of the original perimeter fence were blown down overnight and then replaced. Initially, a double skin fence seems to have been installed, which should consist of an inner ring of steel fencing covered in fabric and then an outer ring which is just steel fencing. The concentric rings are sited to provide sufficient space for stewards to walk between them, but not so far apart that intruders who breach the first fence get a run up at the second. This is the standard of perimeter fencing recommended by the Health & Safety Executive in their informative guide on managing large events, but some of the pictures suggest that it was more rigid and the pictures indicate to me that the bracing feet were insufficient for the task - concrete bases are more usual for HERAS fencing in this environment and there have been problems with wind blowing things over in the past in this area - so a forseeable event.

When part of this fell over in high winds, somebody decided that the best answer was to replace the fencing with a waist height crowd barrier, which was more stable in the wind conditions, but had the unfortunate side effect of allowing the fans outside the venue to see that there was space ahead of them which would allow them to get closer to the site. Fortunately, this space had been allowed as an escape route for crowd pressure, which proved to be a lifesaver and the swift action of the stewards deserves praise.

The size of the crowd was only to be expected, given the line up, which inspired Cllr Martin Mullaney to shout about it on the Stirrer
This line-up is incredible. JLS are number one in the Charts and they are the opening act!!!!! Calvin Harris, probably the coolest DJ at the moment. Alexander Burke - the winner of X-factor last and the Christmas number one. Surely this must the best free concert *ever* in Britain!!!!!!!!!
Although, to be fair, BRMB arranged the acts, Birmingham City Council provided the venue - be interesting to see where the liability ends up.
Only a few days previously, five teenage girls were injured at a JLS concert in Croydon, when a free concert attracted a third more than the venue could hold and when they switched on the Christmas lights in Manchester, the shopping centre was packed, so it was only to be expected that a free concert featuring JLS and a lot more in the centre of a major city would attract even more people. It seems to have been entirely forseeable that a crowd of this size would turn up to watch JLS, let alone see any of the other artists on the bill.

All of this will doubtless come out in the wash, but it seems a little unclear who is in charge of the investigation. Something of this magnitude should be supervised by the HSE under their major incident investigation protocol.

topical concerns or issues where there has already been widespread public interest may warrant consideration of a Level 1 investigation where there was real potential for multiple fatalities, but none actually occurred
And just a reminder that s3(1) of the Health & Safety at Work etc Act 1974 reads:
It shall be the duty of every employer to conduct his undertaking in such a way as to ensure, so far as is reasonably practicable, that persons not in his employment who may be affected thereby are not thereby exposed to risks to their health or safety.
However, there is another matter - the media handling of the aftermath by the council. To his credit, Cllr Mullaney popped up, but then rather missed the point
I am quite happy to face the public all 'red faced' explaining why we closed an event down, rather than having to explain serious injuries and deaths
That doesn't actually cover it, as the issue isn't that the event was closed down, but that it went so badly wrong and visitors to our city were left terrified and some injured. Unsurprisingly, although the PR team at the City Council place Mike Whitby at the centre of the 'Birmingham Brand', the senior partners in the council left the Liberal Democrat cabinet member swinging gently in the wind.
In a time honoured tradition, Cllr Mullaney laid into the local press for claiming that he had admitted that the council had got it wrong - got to be careful about the liability issues - and then launched a diversion in proposing that we use Digbeth for these events in future. While he may have been abandoned by his Conservative coalition-mates, John Hemming spectacularly missed the point
The story should have been council saves lives by cancelling event when thousands break fence and invade concert
when the story was clearly that something had gone massively wrong. Cllr Mullaney carried on stating that the council hadn't got it wrong - as if spreading fear and injury was an intended outcome of the event - pre-empting the outcome of the investigation. However you cut this, something did go hideously wrong and we were very lucky that the headlines weren't speaking of deaths. Blame was then placed on the crowd for surging forward - much as it was at Hillsborough - denying the experience of public order specialists who understand the behaviour of crowds. The responsibility was with the organisers and the police to ensure that visitors to our city could attend a major event in safety and in this, somebody clearly failed.
The attempt to spin this positively after the event is disconcerting - we've seen distraction and diversion, attacks on minor errors of detail and attempts to shift the blame in advance of an independent report. The performance in the past week has demonstrated that the public image and the brand image of Birmingham is far more important than the reality. News management is no subsitute for proper events management and a professional attitude towards the management and mitigation of risk. To add to the concern, we learn of the worries of residents about safety around the building site that will - should the planning committee agree - house the new Library of Birmingham.
Overall, this event again calls the competence of the council into question and I suspect that the enquiry will bear it out.


john said...

The report of 60 injuries is basically wrong. No-one has been identified who had a broken pelvis. It appears that there were five hospital visits, but no-one was admitted.

That does not mean that everything was perfect, but please don't keep exaggerating the situation.

The HSE are looking at the issue. I think that has to count as being sufficiently independent.

steel fencing said...

Damn you need stronger steel fencing