Bonfire night is fast approaching, so what does that mean for organisers, whether it’s those hosting a family event at home or event safety advisors co-ordinating a major gathering with tens of thousands of spectators?
Chris Hall, the NEC Group Safety Manager, is no stranger to large scale, high profile firework displays having worked on the Lambeth Fireworks, Battersea Fireworks, Abu Dhabi New Year’s Eve Fireworks and Dubai Fireworks. In this blog, he talks about event safety on one of the most challenging nights of the year.
The Battersea Park Bonfire Night and Fireworks Display is one of the biggest and most impressive in London attracting a capacity audience of 50,000 people. It includes a traditional bonfire and multiple food and beverage outlets and concessions, culminating in a spectacular 22-minute firework display produced by one of the UK’s most acclaimed fireworks companies.
The event - which I’ve worked on for five years - is managed by an experienced team on behalf of Wandsworth Borough Council and is subject to rigorous planning and Safety Advisory Group meetings. I provide event safety support in planning and safety management during the event itself.
Safety planning is a journey running through the whole event and considered at every stage, i.e. the planning, the event build, the event itself and the de-rig once the event has concluded.
For the visitor, their first experience of any event begins when they book their tickets and for this event, tickets can only be bought online, there are no ticket sales at the gates and the event usually sells out well in advance. This is also the first opportunity for the organisers to communicate essential information about the event to the visitor.
Event safety is a priority at every event, but fireworks displays and bonfires give organisers more than their fair share of challenges especially when there are so many people coming to visit. In addition to the bonfire and fireworks, one of the major concerns will always be the weather and how that can impact the event. Like so many other factors, this must be considered in the planning stages so multiple contingencies can be considered and plans prepared to (hopefully!) deal with any scenario.
With any mass of people or large gathering crowd, movement and behaviours are considered as part of the planning process. We have to plan for the arrival profile of the visitors and work with local transport providers. In the context of this event, there is no parking and everyone arrives either on foot or via public transport, so liaison with the principle suppliers - bus, rail and tube – and communication with ticket buyers is crucial.
During the London 2012 Olympics and Paralympics the Games Makers were an amazing asset; they were the interface with people and they kept them informed, they communicated and they entertained. While event safety is prioritised at every level, funds don’t necessarily stretch to that kind of service at local or community events so we have to make do with the resource we have.
You can’t separate safety and security.
Security - which is increasingly front of mind - is just one of the mechanisms through which we manage safety. Proactive and engaged stewarding and security certainly impacts visitor experience, and a positive visitor experience will impact behaviour. Behaviour in turn impacts safety. It’s the same principle whether it’s a global sporting event like the Olympic Games, a touring artist at the Genting Arena (one of our NEC Group venues), an exhibition at the NEC (another of our venues) or a fireworks display. That initial interface builds confidence in the security and stewarding team which is doubly important when you’re dealing with large numbers of families.
One of the frustrations often faced by safety professionals is the focus (or lack of focus) placed on safety, with safety considerations often an afterthought and at the bottom of a long list of priorities. Times are changing though, and today we are seeing a much greater focus on accountability and better attitude to health and safety. Indeed, with recent events across the UK and further afield, the focus on safety and security has increased dramatically and security and stewarding has become an even more important mechanism available to the safety consultant for ensuring a safe successful event. Visitors have an increased expectation and are often quick to speak out if they feel safety and security measures do not match up to their expectations.
For any event to be safe and successful it is imperative that the organisers engage with their respective safety teams – and it’s essential that they should be involved in the early stages of projects or activities so they can be part of the solution rather than being brought in too late. It’s important for teams to be pragmatic, embrace creativity and come up with solutions to make things work, whether it’s an Olympic Games, high profile pop concert or a bonfire and fireworks display at the local rugby club.
In the same way, careful planning is required whether it’s by safety professionals at major events or a family members for a small display at home.
A few simple and clear safety rules will go a long way towards ensuring you and your family have an enjoyable evening, so when planning for your home bonfire or fireworks display - or a major event - take a little bit of time to visit the ROSPA website (Royal Society for the Prevention of Accidents) or HSE website (Health and Safety Executive) to view their short film clips or read their helpful firework, sparkler and bonfire codes.
Whatever your plans are for the Bonfire Night festivities, we hope you all have a safe and enjoyable evening.
Chris is a Chartered Fellow of the Institute of Occupational Safety and Health (IOSH), a graduate of the Institution of Fire Engineers (GIFireE) and has been an Event Safety Consultant for 14 years working for a range of clients (and events) both here in the UK. and overseas.