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And Then They Booed: Emergency Planning for Outdoor Events

by Brett Lobello, Deputy Director, Brucemore Inc. on

Brucemore hosts the Cedar Rapids, Iowa community for 9 signature events and 32 specific performances annually. Emergency planning is crucial!

And then they started booing. Not the entire audience, but enough people to let me know they were unhappy.

But I should probably start from the beginning. Our team was setting up for a performance. There was a very low chance of “bagels,” but our county was in a severe thunderstorm watch (“bagels” = our staff code for rain. It can even be made into verb). Even if it “bageled,” we had a plan. I felt prepared.

As cars began entering the estate, a storm cell developed to the north. Staff huddled together looking at our go-to hyperlocal weather app, Dark Sky. We decided to delay the start by ten minutes to let a slight drizzle pass. The tech crew covered the audio equipment to protect it from the rain.

Then we all saw it – lightning in the distance. The app said it was less than five miles away. And it stopped raining. Lightning again.

Should we send the audience back to their cars to wait? With no visible rain, would they listen? How long can we delay and still maintain a quality experience? What building can we let them in to if we need to seek protection?

A predetermined emergency plan reduces audience risk and allows staff to focus on the visitors’ safety.

My indecision wasn’t protecting our crowd. After a quick discussion with the artistic team, I took the stage. I apologized as I let them know the show was canceled due to lightning in the area. In line with our weather policy, I told the audience how to pick up tickets to come back another night.

The family in the front row realized I wasn’t joking. And then came the boos. Of course they would boo. It wasn’t even raining. The crowd slowly packed up and departed. Thankfully, the storm hit less than an hour later, validating our decision to cancel.

In the midst of planning outdoor events, it is important to review your options. Most organizations have emergency plans, but even non-severe weather can impact site operations. How could slight rain, extreme heat, wind, or lightning impact people onsite for outdoor events?

Here are a couple of tips for planning and implementing emergency procedures:

  • Develop an emergency plan for events. Make sure to include a defined policy for canceling or postponing events. Does a heat index of 107 degrees cancel an event? Debate scenarios as a staff or board and define a plan to guide decision making in various situations and the procedures that need to be taken. This FEMA resource is comprehensive.
  • Share the emergency plan. Staff and volunteers should know their roles in advance. Emergency planning should not be communicated solely during a pre-event huddle.
  • Decision maker. Determine who the organization’s decision maker is in advance. Do not rely on this to sort itself out in the heat of the moment.
  • Don’t forget your partners. Does your organization need to confer with a partner or other participants to cancel or postpone an event? Make sure they know the emergency plan and their role in implementation of the plan.
  • Confidently communicate. Be transparent with the audience. Have talking points ready for frontline staff and volunteers to allow them to speak confidently and provide audience-focused customer service.
  • Call for action. When communicating to the public, if you need them to follow directions make sure you tell them exactly what to do. Give clear, actionable directions on how to evacuate the property and leave the threatened area.

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