Writing the world rulebook for mass gatherings

Glastonbury Festival (www.glastonburyfestivals.co.uk)
Glastonbury Festival (www.glastonburyfestivals.co.uk)

From schoolies to the Olympic Games, researchers from Flinders University are developing the first-ever guidelines to understand crowd behaviour at some of the world’s biggest events.

Dr Alison Hutton, a senior lecturer in Nursing and Midwifery, is writing a chapter for the World Health Organisation’s Key Considerations for Mass Gathering Events.

The chapter will focus on the “psychosocial” elements of mass gatherings – described as a large public event in a temporary environment attended by more than 10,000 people – and the information will be used to help organisers of such events as the World Cup, Glastonbury and even the Hajj pilgrimage to Mecca.

Now pending review by the WHO, the chapter considers the type and mood of a crowd, religious or political influences, the potential for violence and the effect of music, alcohol, seating and fencing and at mass gatherings.

“The type of people at the event, their behaviour and mood, whether they’re drinking alcohol, listening to music or cheering on a soccer team are all really important factors to consider when planning for a mass gathering,” Dr Hutton said.

“We know that if it rains there’s more injuries, if it’s hot there’s more injuries, if people are seated there’s less injuries and in the biomedical domain we know that 1 in 1000 will have a heart attack but the psychosocial aspects of mass gatherings are really under-investigated,” she said.

“We haven’t considered the impact of people’s motivations or actions – it’s no good putting in security to curtail people without understanding how people behave and why they behave that way.”

Dr Hutton said in the past, the focus had always been on security and epidemiology, or how many people got sick at an event, rather than crowd behaviour.

“Historically, the guidelines for mass gatherings have really only been concerned with infectious diseases and the health ramifications of an event, for example how many people got gastro in the toilets at Glastonbury,” she said.

“The scientific community has always looked at the end product – the numbers – but they haven’t considered why things happen and how we can prevent them from happening.

“But this is the first time they’re looking at how people behave and how we could use that information, so in the Glastonbury case, how we could encourage more people to wash their hands.”

Dr Hutton, who is writing the chapter with input from Flinders researchers Dr Steve Brown, Dr Lynette Cusack and Associate Professor Kathryn Zeitz, said mass gatherings could be used to understand how to manage people in disasters due to their reliance on temporary structures and on site care; therefore it was imperative to understand crowd behaviour.

“The schoolies (school leavers) festival is a prime example, we know it’s a large gathering of young people who, for the most part, want to get drunk so that’s why we have other young people there to walk them home after so they don’t get into any harm,” she said.

“If we can understand what motivates people to attend events, and what they hope to get out of it, then we can prevent some the negative things that might arise, it’s all about mitigation.”

She said mass gatherings were becoming larger and more frequent as cities and countries sought to cash in on the influx of large crowds.

“Mass gathering events mean money to many countries and they can make or break the economy.

“London hasn’t signed up for the Olympics for nothing, they know they haven’t got proper road infrastructure and that it opens them up to terrorists threats but the money and prestige it brings is huge – that’s why they need to consider every aspect, including the psychosocial elements.”

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