By Ronnie Wendt

Over her two-decades-long career, Jennifer Mell, CMP, project manager of meetings and events for Travel Leaders Corporate, has witnessed a dramatic transformation for safety and security at meetings and events.

“Security especially wasn’t even a focus 23 years ago,” Mell reflects. “Not that things didn’t happen back then, but incidents were fewer and farther between. We simply didn’t possess the historical context we have today, where people understand that unforeseen events can occur anywhere to anyone at any time. We need to be prepared for that.”

This paradigm shift has made it vital for event planners to shield attendees from harm, natural disaster, attacks and theft. Today, Mell asserts both clients and attendees increasingly demand robust safety measures.

William Harvey, an event safety and security consultant, and former chief of police for Pennsylvania’s Ephrata Police Department, also underscores the need for proactive safety and security planning. He says, in today’s world, developing a comprehensive safety and security plan, often referred to as an incident action plan, is a necessity, not a luxury.

“Here’s the reality: In today’s litigious world, when something happens, it will end up in court. Attorneys will inquire about your event planning, from finances and logistics to speakers and decorations. If you meticulously planned every aspect, but neglected to prepare for emergencies, you will be held liable.”

The reputations and futures of meeting planners are intricately tied to the safety of the events they plan, he adds. Planners must methodically prepare to protect their audience against unforeseen threats such as fires, power outages, health emergencies, theft or assaults. Equally crucial is training staff on proper response protocols. Neglecting these things have major legal repercussions.

Experts recommend meetings and events professionals consider these preventive measures to boost their safety and security plans:

  1. It’s Never Too Soon to Strategize

Det. Kevin Coffey, renowned travel safety expert and speaker, emphasizes that, while most meetings and events transpire smoothly, it only takes one unforeseen incident to shine a spotlight on the need for emergency preparedness.

He says a significant absence persists within the meeting industry: universally accepted duty of care standards.

Coffey, a former Los Angeles Police Department detective, says that unfortunately some planners tend to neglect preparedness in the meeting and events industry.

“The interest in risk mitigation usually pops up after something has occurred,” he explains. “Then things come to the forefront.”

Coffey, like other experts, agrees that the groundwork for a safe and secure event must be laid long before.

Although some planners do prioritize it, he maintains that the attention often centers on the experience, décor and food rather than on automated external defibrillators (AEDs) or security officers.

Another common issue is a focus on the worst-possible scenario, such as an active shooter situation or wide-scale weather emergency, rather than more common concerns, such as illness, heart attacks, or slips and falls.

Planners, Mell says, must also focus on things like: Where is the nearest hospital? Are AEDs on site? Where are exit doors? Is there an existing evacuation plan? What happens if someone gets food poisoning? What happens if there is a fire? Is a map of the building available?

“These are all components we need to look for,” she says. “And if there are things missing, it is our job to put together a robust handbook or guide, so that if something happens, our staff kno ws what to do.”

Mell provides all staff with emergency instructions in multiple formats — online, in the event app, and in a written binder near the registration desk or event strategy room.

  1. Ask Yourself if You’re Asking the Right Questions

A solid risk management plan begins with assessing resources and attendee expectations, Coffey asserts.

The goal for planners is to ask the right questions to identify resources and staff that can contribute to event safety and security. This covers both internal employees and options at the event venue. He explains that a corporate planner might have access to internal resources, but an independent planner or smaller firm may lack them.

“They will have to look at what works within the confines of the work they do and the company they work for, and then they need to consider how much of it they want to take on,” Coffey says. “They may not have the budget or the time for a lot of things.”

Faced with finite resources, planners must prioritize by threat and need, and collaborate with vendors and venues for the rest. According to Coffey, planners must consider immediate event risks and how they can make reasonable efforts to reduce or respond to foreseeable events.

“I always highlight reasonable and foreseeable,” he says. “Because you cannot expect to do all of these things all the time if you don’t have dedicated people. Planners wear many hats and sometimes they are the only ones planning the entire event.”

To accurately predict future emergencies, Coffey suggests planners inquire about unusual incidents at past events. For example, maybe someone had an allergic reaction, suffered a heart attack or had a computer stolen. These are foreseeable events that can be planned for, he says.

Essentially, planners must identify possible hazards, calculate the possibility for each and analyze potential outcomes — then prioritize which hazards are the most important to address. With a list of the most foreseeable events, planners can now start planning reasonable responses, Coffey adds.

  1. Find Strength in Numbers

A good safety strategy involves a team of people, not just the planner, Harvey stresses, as collaborating with local partners helps decrease risk. He recommends first meeting with the local emergency manager. It’s possible this professional already has a ready- made incident or emergency action plan.

Mell also recommends contacting the venue to see what emergency plans or security already is offered. She explains that many venues have 24-hour security in place, while others have very little. “But even if it’s just one person from 10 p.m. to 7 a.m., it’s a baseline to start from,” she says.

In addition, she recommends inquiring about a venue’s written security or emergency plan. “Get a copy so you’re not reinventing the wheel,” she says. “You can work within the structure they already have.”

According to Coffey, it’s crucial to always do a walkthrough at the venue, as it can reveal any safety concerns and pre-existing safety measures. Planners will discover the locations of AEDs, house phones and fire extinguishers; can verify the functionality of exit doors; and inquire about resources available. Venues should have evacuation instructions as well as a phone number to call for security posted in a prominent location, he adds.

Mell then advises working with the client to gauge their comfort with what’s available. For example, do they want a venue with 24-hour security or are they OK with security only in the evening hours? Do they want to supplement what’s already available with resources of their own?

“Have that conversation with them early enough so they can build it into their budget,” she says. “If you ask about it five days before an event, that money has already been spent. This must be a conversation that happens sooner rather than later.”

  1. Develop Emergency Checklists

When speaking to meeting planners, Coffey likes to ask how many of them use risk management checklists. In every case, he says, “a few hands go up. The hands that go up are usually planners doing larger events. I counter that question by asserting risk mitigation is essential for all meetings and events.”

Using risk management checklists ensures the safety and security of all guests, adds Harvey. He points out even commercial pilots go through a checklist before takeoff. “When planners say they don’t need a checklist, I say, ‘If the most trained people in the world have one, why wouldn’t you?’ he says.

Harvey recommends developing rudimentary checklists that outline safety-related tasks and logistical needs based on conversations with the emergency manager, venue personnel and client, then adding to them. For example, there may be a checklist for what happens during a medical event, and it might designate a member of the staff for each task. For instance, who will call 911, who will respond to the scene or who is going to administer first aid.

“You need to pre-assign the tasks,” Harvey explains. “And you need to keep a list of who has these predetermined assignments for specific emergencies.”

Coffey adds it’s key to decide whom will be called for each emergency event. Most people know to call 911, but that help might be 15 minutes away. Who is available to help before that? It’s imperative to create a list of emergency contacts for distribution. This list will help staff quickly respond in an emergency.

“The contact list can become a matter of life and death. You could save someone’s life when the checklist includes a number to call right away,” he says. “The meeting planner needs the numbers to call, as well as the rest of the staff.”

Safety and security are integral parts of successful event management, every bit as important as the décor and the experience. Following the aforementioned steps will help event organizers prioritize attendee well-being, and mitigate risks and liabilities at every event.

10 Event Safety & Security Questions Every Planner Should Ask

  1. What is our budget for security and safety?
  2. Do we have checklists that outline safety-related tasks and logistical needs?
  3. Do we know where safety- and security-related equipment is at the venue like cameras, fire extinguishers and AEDs?
  4. Do we have protocols for handling extreme dangers, such as a bomb threat or active shooter situation?
  5. Do we have an evacuation plan in place? Have we tested that plan?
  6. Have we walked through the venue to identify hazards that might pose a threat?
  7. What steps will we follow if there is a fire?
  8. Is the venue accessible to police, fire and emergency medical teams?
  9. How will staff proceed during a medical emergency?
  10. Have we developed a plan for crowd control?