How to Master Disasters at Events?

What do you have to do when things go really wrong at your event? Frank Supovitz explains how to deal with crisis situations, such as the 47th Superbowl blackout he had to face himself.

Kevin Van der Straeten
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What do you have to do when things go really wrong at your event? Frank Supovitz explains how to deal with crisis situations, such as the 47th Superbowl blackout he had to face himself.


Hi Frank, thank you for your time. Today we're going to go talk about what to do when things go really wrong at your event. So suppose something goes wrong at your event, what should you do as a planner, as an organiser? 


Well, there are a lot of things that can help you keep things from going wrong, the first is of course great planning, so we can talk about that later, but I think your question was: "what do you do when things go wrong?" And that is to remember that a response requires... A response to a crisis is something that you're trying to recover from. What you don't want to do is react. So recovering requires a response but not a reaction. Reaction means that you're going to do the first thing that comes to your mind or the thing that you think is going to solve the problem right away. But when you do that you could be creating a problem that's going to be even bigger, down the line. I'll give you an example. At the blackout at Super Bowl 47 in New Orleans at 20:12 the lights went out. And we could have gotten the game started about 10 minutes earlier than we actually did. It took about 34 minutes for the game to be restarted, but we had all of our power back, and the lights up to full colour temperature for television within 24 minutes. But the reason that we didn't is because of our response rather than our reaction. The reaction was: "let's get the game started as soon as possible". The response was: "well, what if any of your technical systems were not functional, because they didn't have a chance to reboot". So the instant replay system for example that the referees use. Let's say that we didn't know whether it had restored all its software by the time that we had gotten started. And the play began and there was a score or a controversial play, and the referees had no technology to be able to check to make sure that everything was correct. Normally they would go under a hood and look at a television replay, and then be able to make a decision. So if that didn't happen, then the story of the game would not have been the blackout really, but: "why didn't the National Football League wait a little bit longer to make sure that the instant replay system was back up and running, so that the game could function correctly". 


So: "don't react immediately. Think about it". Are there other things you need to do?  


Well, I think it's also important to remember that what you planned is not as important as what you actually do. So the first thing that people do, when they're faced with a crisis, is that they go back to the plan. And the plan may already have or may already contain contingencies, for the ability to respond to a particular outcome. The fact is that many times you'll be faced with a crisis that has nothing to do with anything that you've planned. So what's really important is not to just stick to the plan blindly, but assess whether the plan is actually going to apply to this particular crisis. So what you've planned is not as important as what you actually do. For example: let's say that you have an extreme weather condition, and it's an outdoor event, and the plan is to continue to play, no matter what. But this particular issue, this particular weather event, might create an unsafe condition for the people who are either attending the game, or actually participating in the match. In that particular case, your plan may have been to continue, but what you do and how you evaluate the conditions at the time, are gonna be more important than what you actually have on a piece of paper. the decision-making is not something you've done 24 hours, 24 weeks or 24 months before your event actually occurs. Good decision making is what you do at the time when you have a particular crisis. 


But does that also mean that we need to make more plans upfront to foresee all those things? 


Oh no, it's absolutely correct. And in fact, what you do is trying to generalise what your response is going to be. So what the NFL did for 10 years, during the time that I was there, in planning for an operational event that might go wrong, is that we'd have a tabletop exercise. So we would simulate game day, about 10 days ahead of time, and anybody who was going to be in a position of authority, decision- making, or information-gathering, would be all together in one place for about 4 hours. Door closed, telephones off, smart- phones off, no email, no texting, and we would hire a facilitator: someone who would be familiar with our operations plan, but who would also be able to be on outside so that they could poke holes in it and find the flaws, and even if there were no flaws, then see if our contingency planning was thorough enough. And he would throw emergency situations at us, and we would have to respond to them as a team, in real-time. He'd tell us what time of day it was, what was going on on the field, what was going on out on the parking lots, what the weather conditions were like, and then he would tell us something terrible. So for example: a truck overturns on the highway outside the stadium, and there is toxic gas leaking from the truck. Or: somebody approached the checkpoints with something that could create damage. Or: there was criminal activity outside in the parking lot. How do you make the decisions on what you do with your event, whether the game continues to go on, whether you continue to fill the stadium, evacuate the stadium, do whatever you think is the best outcome for that. And in this particular case... And we did this every year, by the way, for 10 years. Every year there were different situations. Every year there was a different stadium. The Super Bowl goes from place to place, so it doesn't have a host stadium that... In the 10 years that I was there we only played in the same stadium twice. So it's in 9 different stadiums. And what we determined was, that this exercise created great team-building, decision-making opportunities, people hadn't been together for a year. Some people had just joined us, or they were from the local community, that were in decision-making roles. And what that helped us do was build a better plan, so we had more contingencies, but what was really important is that it showed how we would respond to something we didn't expect. So, going back to the blackout in New Orleans, without harping on one particular issue, we never actually created a scenario where the power went out in the stadium. But we ended up in going back into the same roles that we did 10 days before, because it was an unexpected situation, and we then responded the same way that we did 10 days before to other situations, and evaluating what was happening, determining what our response was going to be, and then in a very calculated and very calm way set about to find ways to restore power and get the event back on track. 


But for an event as large as the Super Bowl, that sounds very logical but could it also be applied to a small event? Could it be a good exercise to do if you're organising something for maybe 100 people? 


I think yes, in some way you can do all of that. Most events rehearse, and what they rehearse is the entertainment. 


Of course.  


But they don't always rehearse the operational issues. They don't always think about what people's experiences are going to be before the lights go out, the spotlights come on, the microphones go on... This is something that is an operational rehearsal. So if it's a question of opening up the hotel ballroom door, and serving dinner, I would say: no, that's not really all that necessary. If it's something that's a little bit unusual for a venue, if you are going to create any kinds of different operational plans, bottlenecks, valet-parking, I would say that all of those things, if they haven't been done before in that particular venue, or it isn't part of something that that venue does all the time, every week, every day, several times a day, then yes, I think that an operational rehearsal is something very important. 


Okay, one last question... Something we didn't talk about yet, and that's communication. Suppose there is a major issue at your event, when do you start communicating with the audience, with the people over there, and how do you handle that? 


Well, I think it's enormously important to communicate with your audience, and it's equally important to be communicating with all the people on your team who can help you not only communicate with the audience, but respond to what the issue is. In many cases or in some cases perhaps your communication systems may be part of the problem. If it's a power failure for example, and your telephones go out, and your clear-com goes out. Do you have another way to communicate? We did have another way to communicate: we were communicating via text, we were unable to get to the public address announcer at the stadium, for example. Because we would normally talk to him over a clear-com system, or over a telephone system, a hard wired telephone system. That was impossible to do, so we started writing scripting for the public address announcer, and having people run it to him in another part of the stadium. It's really important to also now have an opportunity to use social media, because you know can talk to people without talking to people. You can post what's going on, because that's the first place people are gonna look. They're gonna look at Twitter or Facebook or other social media platforms that people use and you can communicate with them sometimes more quickly that way. But what's really important is that you have the opportunity to do that once you know what you're going to say to them definitively. It's better to tell them to remain calm and stay in place, and you will be getting an information, as it becomes available. All very, very important, but it's really important to make sure your information is accurate. You don't want to communicate something that you will have to uncommunicate later. So assessing your situation, what you're dealing with, is going to be important, and to be able to keep people informed, is something that's also important. And so, as you can see, there are so many different threads of communication, that you should try to delegate those threads of communication to other people, so that it's not one person making every decision, communicating every piece of information, because there will be priorities in terms of solving problems, and communicating how to get over those problems, and one person can't do all that work. 


Okay Frank...  


You don't want to be that bottleneck. 


No, of course not. Thank you very much for your time and all these tips. 


My pleasure, it was great to be here. 


And you at home: thank you for watching our show. I hope to see you next week!