Article Features by Margery Haupt, LaWayne Hearn and Kevin Townsend

ABCs of Safety, Communications and Large Events

Margery Haupt is arts & cultural affairs manager for the City of Riverside and can be reached at LaWayne Hearn is deputy chief for the Riverside Fire Department and can be reached at Kevin Townsend is a lieutenant with the Riverside Police Department and can be reached at

When a large-scale event is planned, it’s not unusual for staff to collectively hold their breath until it’s over. Such apprehension is understandable, given recent events and the need to minimize risk for attendees.

The annual Festival of Lights at the historic Mission Inn Hotel & Spa in Riverside (pop. 328,101) draws more than 750,000 people. The inn is transformed for the festival with over 5 million holiday lights, decorated with 400 animatronic figures and filled with holiday music. The festival runs from Thanksgiving weekend through the end of the year. It features artisans’ wares, live entertainment, a Ferris wheel and vendors with holiday treats.

Residents and visitors perceive the Festival of Lights as a seamless experience — they don’t see the thousands of hours of planning and advance work needed to execute this large-scale event. Because the most important aspect of any event is safety, the City of Riverside uses these guiding principles for large events.

A Unified Vision

The vision for the event must be detailed, created by the entire team and tailored to the spirit and nature of the event. Safety is an integral part of that vision. An effective vision includes these key aspects.

Clearly defined roles. All members of our leadership team understand each team member’s role. The roles correspond to the event’s phases and change as the event unfolds, with different team members in the lead before, during and after.

A positive experience for attendees. Providing residents and visitors with an enjoyable and memorable experience of the event is the overarching goal.

Safety. Focusing on safety for attendees, staff and other event participants is essential.

Tap Into Resources

Consider these tips for tapping into existing resources.

Ask. If you don’t ask, you’ll never know what’s possible. Look to your partners in the fire and law enforcement community for insight, input and support. Depending on the event’s size and scope, ask the appropriate federal, state or local agencies for support. This can be informational or data-driven or it may involve personnel and/or equipment.

Build on staff’s existing relationships with other agencies.

Invite the community to participate somehow; for example, the “If you see something, say something” campaign encourages people to watch for and report suspicious activity.

Increase available resources as needed, depending on the event’s size. Larger events require greater investments — of personnel, resources, equipment and time — in safety.

Communication Is Critical

The importance of effective communication cannot be overstated. A solid communications effort comprises the following elements.

Use a consistent approach. Start planning early, meet regularly and include other departments, organizations and individuals as necessary.

“Humanize” the safety component. Involve safety personnel in messaging about safety and the event, and make sure they are a friendly, helpful part of the event for attendees.

Include public information officers (PIOs). Their skills and contacts can provide invaluable support. It’s also extremely helpful to have them at the event. If you have access to more than one PIO, plan to have all of them attend and participate.

Hold a candid debriefing session. After the event, meet to identify what worked, what didn’t and opportunities for improvement. Discuss and document the lessons learned and goals for the next event.

Foster respect. Each event involves a wide range of roles with different responsibilities. Effective teamwork depends on mutual respect for each other, the work each of us performs and each team member’s expertise.

Taking a Proactive Approach

It’s impossible to know if or when something will happen at or to your event. By carefully planning, communicating and focusing on public safety, your city or organization will be prepared to respond to whatever may occur — from commonplace to momentous.

Don’t Miss This Session at the Annual Conference

Interested in hearing more about this topic? Plan to attend the “ABCs of Safety, Communications and Large Events” session at the League of California Cities 2019 Annual Conference & Expo. The session will be held Thursday, Oct. 17, from 8:15–9:30 a.m. For location details, see the conference brochure or the League’s mobile app.

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