Risk Assessment for the Artificially Generated Stampede


On April 15, 2014, I submitted the following article for publication with the Risk Management Society.


Risk Assessment for the Artificially Generated Stampede

From a risk management perspective, few hypothetical scenarios can match the gravity presented by the artificially generated stampede.  It could very well be the asymmetric national security predicament of the century.  At its core is a simple question.

Do people have a fundamental right to know…
that if they’re in a large, confined crowd and receive an emergency evacuation notice and/or panic-inducing information from their cell phone or mobile device…

it’s almost certainly a hoax designed to create an artificially generated stampede?

This is obviously a common sense, public safety issue.  It’s merely the generic, technological equivalent of shouting “fire” in a crowded theater.  Calling, texting, tweeting, alerting.  Hacking, spoofing, an intentional saturation of information or manipulation of social media.  In the current wireless environment, the ways to perpetuate a real-time, real-world hoax are seemingly infinite.  Everyone is “cellularly susceptible.”  There are no reasonable contingency plans.  Incident commanders (those tasked with the ultimate authority to issue an emergency evacuation) no longer have the same degree of authority and control they once possessed.

And the damage could be particularly severe.  It stands to reason that if someone acted with malicious intent, they’d likely seek to impact additional in-use venues.  I refer to this phenomenon as a dominipede (multiple, simultaneous human stampedes).

So why has this issue never been floated in the public domain?
The suppression would appear intentional.  It stems directly from the catch-22.

If you acknowledge a problem, you own it.  And if it were to happen, you reap the blame.

Too obvious?  Perhaps.  But it does explain the motivational lack of interest on behalf of the NFL, the NCAA and the federal government.  These institutions go to extraordinary lengths to protect fans and citizens.  However, plausible deniability and foreseeable litigation are significant liabilities.  More often than not, culpability and profit trump safety.

Furthermore, this matter involves discussing the undiscussable.  Indiscriminately killing people without conventional weapons is a dangerous precedent in the realm of generational warfare.

Now there are some who would make the case for mitigation.  Surely the government has a handle on this matter.  There must be some top secret communication filtration system.  It’s my opinion that such an assertion is patently ludicrous.  If this were the case, problems arising from bomb threats would have been eradicated long ago.

There’s another inherent problem with relying on the notion of mitigation.  It requires that a reasonable amount of time elapse during the OODA (observe, orient, decide, act) loop.  Since human stampedes occur spontaneously, each phase is rendered irrelevant.  OODA loops simply cease to exist.

When mitigation becomes an exercise in futility, the only plausible solution can be universal awareness campaigns.  If you give it some thought, the paradox of the artificially generated stampede is similar to the historical dilemma presented by forest fires.  Both require a broader acknowledgment and moral acceptance of the problem.  Only you can prevent forest fires.  Stadium evacuation orders are not issued via cell phones.

So let’s say you’ve made the official determination to begin sharing this information.  From a risk management perspective, how far do you take it?  That’s a good question because it involves delicate social mores.  Many people would offer up the following argument.  What if by putting this information out there, you inadvertently put an idea in someone’s head?  Now this line of reasoning is not entirely without merit.  However, I would counter that it mirrors the same justification used for forest fire awareness campaigns.

The overriding question becomes… is it reasonable to inform the general public about something the majority of incident commanders and industry professionals are already well aware of?  That a legitimate stadium evacuation order would NEVER be delivered through personal cell phones.  Regardless of the sensitivity surrounding emergency evacuation protocol, I believe the time for transparency has arrived.  The seriousness of this issue demands a solution.

Should we be proactive and start notifying people about this hypothetical risk?  Absolutely.  Because there’s a discernible inevitability to an event like this being attempted.  Whether or not it’s ultimately successful is an entirely different question.  It stands to reason that it will be attempted until it is successful.  I base this assumption on the fact that human beings have always searched for innovative ways to kill each other.  If people are willing to fly planes into buildings, it stands to reason they’d be willing to foment stampedes.

The conundrum presented by the artificially generated stampede requires that we take some form of action.  People have a right to defend themselves.  This includes the right to obtain knowledge of potentially dangerous situations.  It’s the same reason we notify ballpark fans of the danger presented by broken bats and batted balls.  The artificially generated stampede just hasn’t happened yet.  However, this has no bearing on the moral imperative to raise awareness.  A dominipede is not an acceptable outcome.

So what’s the best solution?  The most important consideration is balancing the public’s right to know without engaging in unnecessary fear-mongering.  Granted, it’s a fine line.  Therefore, I’d keep the message as simple as possible.

As a matter of future policy, I would encourage dispensing the following information to anyone entering a large, confined crowd (stadium, arena, amphitheater, motor speedway, political convention, etc.).

Please be aware… that in the unlikely event of an emergency evacuation, such an order would NEVER originate from your personal cell phone or mobile device.

I’d recommend using any means available: the public address system, the jumbotron, ticket stubs and event programs.

It’s a simple, clear message.  But most important, it’s the truth.