National Football League stadium emergency evacuation videos are a touchy subject. Simply stated, evacuations aren’t supposed to happen unless the circumstances are exceptionally dire. Further complicating the matter, it’s difficult to candidly broach the subject when much of the rationale and many of the underlying components are held under a veil of tight-lipped secrecy and innuendo.
There are 2 basic reasons to stage an evacuation: dangerous activity or the perception of an imminent threat.
With regard to inclement weather, such as lightning strikes, the NFL consensus seems geared toward delaying start times and temporarily suspending games. It’s a reasonable and viable means of avoiding an evacuation scenario. NCAA football stadiums seem to exercise a little less discipline. They’ve exhibited a greater willingness to engage in full scale evacuations when dealing with extreme weather. Such was the case during several college games in early September of 2011.
In the 2013 Baltimore vs. Denver NFL season opener, the kickoff was delayed 34 minutes.
Issuing a voluntary evacuation statement could have unintended consequences. Giving a sold-out crowd of 76,000+ the opportunity to make their own decisions is a potentially dangerous course of action. But I think it signals something else. There seems to be a league-wide reluctance when it comes to ordering full scale evacuations. I think it’s reasonable to conclude that the NFL is deeply concerned over the notion of setting an “evacuation precedent.”
In week 2, there were additional lightning related weather delays in Tampa Bay (Attendance: 60,870) and Seattle (Attendance: 68,338). The games were suspended as players and personnel were cleared from the field, but no evacuation was ordered for the fans. Some fans even chose to remain in their seats.
In all three weather delays, it appears that officials handled the situation well. They exhibited a reasonable amount of cautionary discretion. However, it’s more anecdotal evidence that the NFL is less inclined to stage complete evacuations.
Emergency evacuation protocol is sensitive material. At the core of everything is the notion of distinguishing a bomb threat condition from a bomb threat emergency. For obvious reasons, this is a highly nuanced dilemma. It should not come as a surprise to know that just because someone phones in a bomb threat or leaves a menacing note at the concession stand… that in itself, is likely insufficient reason to stage an evacuation. A bomb threat “emergency” invokes a much higher threshold of evidence.
Let me be very blunt. There is ample documentation of multiple NFL stadiums receiving bomb threats while games were in progress. But no evacuation orders were issued. And the reason is obvious – it would set an atrocious precedent and likely encourage copycats. The evacuation of any NFL stadium due to a bomb threat “condition” would likely be viewed in hindsight as an abject failure. In cases like this, the best evacuation is simply NO evacuation.
Yet, amidst the confusion, NFL stadium emergency evacuation videos are becoming increasingly visible. Of the 32 NFL teams, a total of 16 have videos posted on their official websites (Arizona, Carolina, Cincinnati, Denver, Detroit, Green Bay, Indianapolis, Kansas City, New Orleans, New York Jets, Oakland, Pittsburgh, Tennessee, San Diego, Seattle, and St. Louis).
Sixteen NFL teams do NOT have evacuation videos posted on their official websites (Atlanta, Baltimore, Buffalo, Chicago, Cleveland, Dallas, Houston, Jacksonville, Miami, Minnesota, New England, New York Giants, Philadelphia, San Francisco, Tampa Bay and Washington).
This is noteworthy because it demonstrates a lack of meaningful guidance from the NFL front office. Unfortunately, when the subject matter is taboo and emergency preparedness norms vary, it can produce mixed results. Some teams seem willing to promote these videos in the interest of fan safety. Others appear more reserved about venturing into uncharted territory. Some might even think that evacuation videos do more harm than good. A clear directive on this matter from the NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell would seem advisable.
Now just because a team opts to forgo displaying a video on their official website doesn’t necessarily mean they haven’t created or shown evacuation videos. It’s merely a determination to not post the video. Also, many teams opt to employ written statements concerning evacuation protocol. For example, both New York teams share Met Life Stadium. The NY Jets display an evacuation video on their official website whereas the NY Giants do not. The Giants just have a series of carefully worded statements. Same stadium but different teams. Different organizations. Different people. Different interpretations and approaches.
I viewed the 16 NFL stadium evacuation videos. All of them are roughly 1-2 minutes in length. The majority of each video clip is devoted to providing a detailed explanation of how fans should exit the venue, specifically by level and section. But oddly enough, NONE of the videos reference exactly how the instructions for an evacuation would be disseminated. That is correct – none of them. There’s simply no mention of utilizing the public address system or the jumbotron.
Of the 16 videos…
None of them discuss the possibility of an artificially generated stampede. This is wise. It’s best not to delve into hypothetical scenarios as it would likely become a slippery slope. Exactly where does one the draw the line? Raising such an issue could also be viewed as imprudent fear mongering.
Nine of the videos (56%) reference a reliance on obtaining assistance, information and direction from ushers and staff members. Seven (44%) make no mention of this.
This is a noteworthy discrepancy because in the event of an unanticipated emergency, such dependence on “lesser authority figures” could actually lead to a heightened state of confusion and the potential for a greater degree of unpredictability. A successful emergency evacuation relies heavily on the delivery of a single, unified, coherent message. Further augmenting the problem, most stadiums run their evacuation public service announcements during generally “low impact” moments, particularly as fans are filtering into the stadium. This would appear to be a monetarily driven decision designed to not interfere with the game or high profile advertising.
Thirteen of the videos (81%) stress the importance of how fans should remain “calm” and/or exit in an “orderly” fashion. Three (19%) made no reference to any human emotions or behavior regarding an exit strategy (Carolina, New Orleans, and St. Louis).
Twelve of the videos (75%) mention that escalators and elevators are not to be used in the event of an emergency evacuation. In fact, the New Orleans Saints video references the non-use of escalators and elevators on 4 separate occasions. Four (25%) made no mention of escalators or elevators (Kansas City, Green Bay, San Diego and Seattle).
The big overriding question… from a risk assessment/management perspective, is it REASONABLE to tell people that they would never receive a legitimate evacuation order from their cell phone? Even though none of the 16 videos reference how an evacuation order is disseminated, I believe it is both appropriate and necessary. Any competent incident commander (the individual with the authority to order an evacuation) will readily concede that under NO CIRCUMSTANCE WHATSOEVER would you launch an evacuation by transmitting information to everyone’s individual cell phone. Because it could jeopardize the entire process. It’s the one issue where there would be unanimity. In an industry filled with difficult judgement calls and ill-defined parameters, this is the one assertion where there would be total agreement. But nobody is willing to acknowledge or address the fundamental issue of outdated emergency evacuation protocol. So the entire discussion remains dangerously underneath the radar.
Stadium safety and security is a continually evolving issue. The NFL is currently immersed in its new “clear bag” policy. Although the NFL won’t overtly disclose why the clear bag policy was implemented, I think it’s fair to assume that a major reason is to discourage and prevent attendees from bringing any kind of weaponry into a stadium. The discharge of a weapon is one of those circumstances that could necessitate a full scale evacuation. And full scale evacuations just simply aren’t supposed to take place. If you think about it, it’s really kind of ironic. Because while security is inspecting the trinkets and cosmetics in a “12 x 6 x 12” zip lock bag, many fans are physically raising a cell phone in their other hand. Needless to say, the hand holding the cell phone doesn’t receive as much scrutiny.