Security market analyst

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Hunter Seymour is a security market analyst with expertise in both the fire and security markets.
July 29, 2020

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The Video Surveillance Report 2022

Venue risk management

Back in the game: How the return of spectators to sport may affect security and fire professionals

As enjoyable as it has been (for some, at least) to see football return to the TV and a cricket bat back in the hands of Ben Stokes, it’s all felt a little soulless without the crowds. Bringing fans back into grounds will not be easy, however. And, the measures that are put in place will significantly impact on the security and fire safety procedures of venues. How will social distancing measures impact on fire risk assessments and procedures? And what alterations will need to be made to security audits?

Compiled using sources from the UK Government, the Sports Grounds Safety Authority, and consultants who work in the security and fire sphere, Hunter Seymour explores the issues involved in returning spectators to sports grounds.

It’s a harsh fact but the problems besetting risk management in the phased return of sports events under current social-distancing guidelines are, by definition, likely to resist clear-cut solutions, given that the terms of reference will continue to shift as official public safety protocols develop. Yet, when the stakes are so high, how do sports venues manage the risks of COVID safeguarding and the need to bring attendance back to venues for practical business reasons?


This urgency can be measured by the catastrophic COVID-bred economic fallout for live spectator sports events worldwide. The figures are grim. According to recent projections by sports data analysts Twin Circles, the pre-coronavirus annual revenue generated by the global sports industry has practically halved, falling from £106bn to £57bn. For instance, it’s predicted that Premier League clubs will suffer a £1billion loss should the impacts of the coronavirus shutdown continue.

No one, therefore, can ignore the immense challenges ahead and the myriad pressures to adapt to these testing times, which means it is important to examine the practical steps we can take to bring about the safe return of spectators under social distancing, with new ways to mitigate risk determined by reduced venue capacity.

Entrance-to-exit, case-by-case direction of travel

As the latest UK government guidance points out, the current duties of risk management at sports events are dependent on your understanding of recommendations, and should also be applied dependent on the specific event – these may supersede national guidelines.  The intermeshing of sometimes two or more levels of regulation is an added headache. In other words, case-by-case risk scenarios will be the rule according to the Government guidance on the phased return of sport and recreation.

Fortunately, the SGSA (Sports Grounds Safety Authority) has had the forethought to anticipate concerns with their publication of  “Planning for social distancing at sports grounds“. The in-depth 85 page guide seeks to prepare management for the move towards the UK Government’s Stage Five, also known as “Return to Competition with Reduced Venue Capacity”.

Essentially, in fulfilment of government aims, the SGSA guidance directs you to consider the entire end-to-end “user journey” when planning safe operating practices at your venue. This means all activities from the time of arrival on site to leaving – not just the sporting activity – particularly taking account of the behavioural patterns of spectators under social distancing.

So, necessarily, the “end-to-end journey” suggests a very useful Entrance-to-Exit Check List for security and risk managers to define their own risk strategies at sports events, which in practice should cover:

  • Flexible capacity: assessing future safe capacity of sports ground for social distancing.
  • Resources: defining staff responsibilities for social distancing and COVID-19 protection.
  • Direction of flow: survey, design and management of routes for social distancing.
  • Stairway switchovers: managing upwards flow for ingress and downwards for egress.
  • Interacting Zones: demarcating Zones for density plans to comply with social distancing:
  • Zone 1 risk – the pitch or principal field or arena of event activity;
  • Zone 2 risk – the viewing accommodation, i.e. any area provided for spectators of event;
  • Zone 3 risk – concourse(s), i.e. areas with public amenities for congregating;
  • Zone Ex risk – external zone of immediate environment, i.e. the ground’s outer perimeter.
  • Enhanced messaging – Signage, Public Address, Voice Annunciation, Stewarding, etc.

Number-crunching for optimised capacity

In perhaps an intentionally bravura understatement, the director of a European UEFA Category 4 stadium, a BS8901 venue with 50,000 seats capacity, stated “it’s quite a complex mathematical operation,” when describing the challenges of new seating configurations. The uncertainties are daunting. At two-metre distancing the capacity would be restricted to 8,200 and gate receipts would be financially unviable. With social distancing reduced to one-metre, however, the stadium could admit about 18,500 spectators, yielding financial viability.

Today’s risk management, then, as this brutal number-crunching exercise reminds us, will have to get to grips with the fiendish complexities of allocation-algorithms to determine the governing logic for creating safe social distances between fans in a variety of guises: singles, pairs, or in larger combinations of multi-seated social bubbles, up to six spectators.

The automatic algorithmic solutions that this post-Covid allocation conundrum has brought to bear on the sports events sector, of course, are also applied more widely to the common concerns of facilities risk management, particularly, Safe Distancing of Circulation Routes, which the SGSA Guide examines in depth.

Crowd circulation systems

Crowd-behaviour modelling and predictive simulations inform current research to supplement the huge body of regulatory instruction that exists for maintaining safe ingress and egress routes in places of public assembly. Critically, pre-Covid regulation will be examined with care for its relationship to the current circumstances.

A thought-provoking example – Route Capacity – may be considered in the Regulatory Reform (Fire Safety) Order’s “Risk Assessments for Large Places of Assembly”: “The capacity of an escape route is measured by the number of persons per minute that can pass through it . . .”

By contrast, the SGSA Guide draws attention to the complexities of “phased egress designed to assist in compliance with social distancing.” These factors are further compounded by flow hindered by slow moving lines of spectators resulting in possible congestion, itself a breach of social distancing. This is but one complex scenario fully explored in the SGSA guide, with detailed projections of cases where, for example, redirection of spectators along different routes can resolve the problems of crowd intensity and ‘pinch-points’.

The SGSA also cites additional fire safety measures could include a fire marshal stationed next to a fire door that needs to remain open for circulation reasons, but would have to be closed in the event of a fire.

In the final analysis, however, the SGSA Supplementary Guidance recommends that “in the event of an emergency, standard operational procedures for emergency egress should be followed and may take precedence over social distancing requirements.”

Logistical challenges

The question of hygiene is yet another factor for concern. Even assuming the safe passage of fans through a sports ground there remains the hazard of contagion and SGSA states: “It is inevitable that as people circulate around the ground they will touch a variety of different surfaces such as barriers, hand rails, grab rails and doors. It is therefore vital that management puts into place measures for the regular cleaning of such surfaces during an event.”

In an ironic twist, ESSMA, the European Stadium & Safety Management Association, draws attention to the reality of those stadiums transformed into test centres and field hospitals in response to COVID-19. ESSMA concedes fans will have the last word. “As long as there is no vaccine, 90% of respondents say they will be unwilling to return to stadiums.”

Ultimately, this could prompt a complete overhaul of a venue’s Operations Manual. However, such a demanding revision of a fire protection system, for example, clearly requires time and resources.

Alan Meyrick, Security Consultant, SGW Safety & Security Ltd, outlines some of the ramifications of risk management at sports venues likely to be encountered. “Additionally, how are staff assembly points, or assembly points in general, going to change in terms of location, spatial consideration and management? Will venue operators have to allocate a larger area and do they have the spatial requirements to ensure social distancing is maintained and apply the correct hygiene measures whilst people assemble?

“Spectators will likely just leave the stadium and not be required to assemble, however, staff and other venue personnel would need to assemble and then re-enter. Would venue operators have to apply a re-screening process? This poses time and logistical challenges, despite the anticipated reduction in staffing and spectator numbers.”

Certainly, the SGSA Supplementary Guidance anticipates many of these logistical problems. A case in point is the dispersal of spectators from Zone 2 to the sports ground’s outer Zone (which may be Zones 3, extended to 4 or 5 depending on the ground’s size and configuration) and onwards to Zone Ex. The Guide emphasises “that although the management’s responsibilities for social, distancing technically cease once spectators have left the ground and entered Zone Ex – that part of the public realm that lies just beyond the ground’s outer perimeter – any procedures introduced for egress from the ground must take into consideration the possible impact that the dispersal of spectators might have on the social distancing needs of members of the public in Zone Ex.”

These considerations apply to outer networks of routes or areas, often leading to transport hubs, and whose management is considered key to the safe and secure arrival and departure of spectators.

As we have seen, the clearest, unambiguous communication at critical times is the key to safe crowd management, particularly wayfinding and signage supported by public address systems and fully trained stewarding.

Martyn Henderson, Chief Executive of the SGSA, says of this important Guide: “This is an important step on the road to spectators being allowed into sports grounds.  This document provides sports grounds with the knowledge and guidance they need to plan for the return of fans with confidence. Our purpose is, and always will be, ensuring fans can watch live sport safely. The return to full stadia will not happen overnight. However, our new guidance provides sports grounds with the tools to enable some spectators to return safely.”

Emergency precautions

Alan Meyrick concludes his thoughts by sounding a note of caution. “I would envisage venue operators will have to conduct revised Fire Evacuation Plan drills and exercises in line with best practice regarding Covid-19 measures ahead of stadiums being open, albeit in a restricted manner, to the public in October.

“Fundamentally, it is assumed that stadia operators would take preservation of life as a priority, perhaps to the detriment and breach of social distancing and COVID-19 measures in the event of an emergency evacuation, which could expose the venue operator to challenges around their policies and practices at a later date, particularly in the event of a COVID outbreak originating at their venue.”

“As government public safety guidance develops to anticipate the easing of safety measures for lockdown in many sectors (retail, hospitality, sport, etc.), this official guidance must be read together with the existing comprehensive guidelines that are defined by the Regulatory Reform (Fire Safety) Order, the RRO.

“In any COVID-related decision-making by risk consultants, therefore, RRO guidance should be considered and appropriately applied for compliance to meet best practice for sectors where lockdown is eased (such as Offices and Shops, Places of Assembly, Open Air Venues). In all cases, where a facility is repurposed, the review and/or revision of current risk assessments by the responsible person should be a commitment of the highest priority.

“Similarly, Security Risk audits should be reviewed and reassessed by security professionals where COVID-19 measures have wrought changes to the use and integrity of facilities.”

Behind closed doors

Despite these unflinching practical approaches to a grave crisis, a sense of unreality pervades a number of matches now being played behind closed doors. From the virtuality of cardboard cutouts of real fans massed on the terraces, to the theatricality of piped applause whose volume is controlled by a sound engineer, there is no substitute for the beautiful game to be found in the roar of the greasepaint and the void of the crowd.

We gratefully acknowledge the valued assistance of the Sports Grounds Safety Authority in the writing of this article. 

For more news and views on how coronavirus has affected the roles of security and fire safety professionals, visit our coronavirus in security and fire hub.

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