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Ten people were killed at the Travis Scott Astroworld Festival in November. The killer? A phenomenon known as “crowd surge.” Crowd surge refers to instances of a dense crowd suddenly creating a powerful force of momentum, a “surge-like” wave in the ocean. As a result, people get caught in the throng and are crushed and trampled. However, as Stan Choe of the Associated Press notes, asphyxiation — a fatal lack of oxygen — is the greatest danger posed by crowd surges.

This is not the first, and likely not the last, time that a crowd surge turns a concert deadly. In 1979, a concert in Cincinnati, Ohio, featuring The Who, resulted in the deaths of 11 attendees after a stampede at the entrance. Crowd surges are not limited to concerts, either. In England, a “human crush” at the Hillsborough soccer stadium in 1989 tallied almost 100 deaths. A collision between two crowds in Saudi Arabia during the hajj pilgrimage led to more than 2,400 dead in 2015.

Crowd surges are by no means a new phenomenon — as a numbers game, any concert or large gathering runs the risk of a crowd surge. Can dangerous crowds be avoided at large-scale events? 

How do crowd surges kill?

Surprisingly, there are no federal regulations in the United States on crowd safety, . Instead, the National Fire Protection Association’s 101 Life Safety Code has become the de facto standard for promoting crowd safety. The 2021 Life Safety Code identifies a handful of core recommendations: At least one crowd manager should be present for every 250 occupants; in spaces larger than 10,000 square feet, crowd density should be seven square feet per person at a minimum; exits should be accessible; for events with more than 6,000 people, life safety evaluations should be conducted to assess safety measures for medical emergencies, natural disasters and other emergencies.

However, because the NFPA code is not a federal regulation, not everyone has adopted it. Moreover, the 101 Life Safety Code is updated every three years; however, among jurisdictions and agencies that have adopted the code, not everyone follows the most up-to-date standards.

According to NPR, among the 56-page event plan for Astroworld, no protocol was listed to address a potential crowd surge.

Solutions to crowd surges

A UK-based company, Crowd Safety, offers consulting services for crowd safety. Crowd Safety consultants work with venues and hosts to provide event risk assessment, design appropriate safety measures to reduce risk and aid in the planning and implementation of recommended measures.

Among popular crowd safety measures is the “show-stop,” developed by Crowd Safety’s Steve Allen. The idea of a show-stop is that a performer pauses the show, turning on stage lights and using their (literal) platform to encourage the audience to calm down or even direct attendees to help concert-goers in need of medical assistance. A show-stop ideally takes only a few moments; if the crowd behaves accordingly, the show goes on, and if not, the performance ends.

At the University of Newcastle, Australian professor Alison Hutton identifies that crowd management is all about crowd psychology. Lights, music tempo and ambient sound can all be used to help “tame” a crowd. Hutton provides the example of a concert featuring Rammstein, a German heavy metal band known for attracting aggressive crowds. During the Big Day Out festival in 2011, concert managers used a pyrotechnic display matched with ambient music between the band’s sets to control crowd mood and behavior.

Additionally, Huton points out, performers can encourage concert-goers to engage in either positive or dangerous behavior. To avoid dangerous situations like crowd surges, performers can help event managers by participating in creating a more controlled, safe environment.

In a CNN interview, Gil Fried, a crowd management expert and professor at the University of West Florida, pointed to an Eminem concert as an example of a performer encouraging positive crowd behavior. When a crowd surge started developing, Eminem instructed the audience to engage in a “new dance,” taking “two steps back, one step forward” to help alleviate dangerous crowding near the stage.

Fried went on to suggest that while the adoption of federal policy may be helpful, to do so frivolously would provide no substantial change. If any regulations are to be implemented, they must be thorough and intentional. A Band-Aid won’t save a sinking ship. 

A caveat of this, however, is whether the audience, for artists like Travis Scott (who is known for hosting wild concerts), wants any semblance of control. For many, concerts are the perfect opportunity for a cathartic release; losing control is part of the allure. The best answer to this is that what people want isn’t always what is best for them. Crowds can let loose but will have to learn to do so in moderation. This will not be a matter of teaching people to behave, but implementing stronger, and perhaps more strict, safety protocols at large events. Performers, too, should be encouraged to be more responsive to crowd dynamics, learning to pull back when the atmosphere becomes too precarious.

As the world looks ahead to the future, the socially-distanced concerts of the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic may pose an innovative solution to prevent crowd surge. Around the globe, event planners balanced COVID-19 safety protocol with socially distanced, outdoor seating arrangements. In Helsinki, Finland, event planners turned an industrial lot into a picnic-table concert; in the United States, drive-in concerts became popular; and in Newcastle, England, the Virgin Money Unity Arena utilized private, gated platforms where sweaty, packed crowds were exchanged for subdued tables, often with snacks and drinks available for order. Crowd surges were a non-existent threat.

There are drawbacks to socially-distanced concerts. Limited seating means limited profit. “Distance,” too, may seem counterproductive to what many people attend concerts for — the crowds. It’s hard to dance, mosh and lose yourself in the moment when seated politely on a picnic blanket, six feet from your closest neighbor. As the world carefully edges towards a future without the threat of COVID-19, the idea of social-distancing may seem even more frustrating. The solution isn’t perfect, nor does it have to be the only one on the table. Rather, keeping the option of enforced distancing through assigned lots or reduced seating may help avoid dangers like crowd surges. 

With any large gathering comes danger. Whether it be general panic or a crowd surge, controlling a crowd is no small feat, especially in an environment that encourages revelry — like a concert. The innovations outlined here are by no means the only options, nor do they promise 100% efficacy. Rather, as the nation recovers from the shock and grief of the Astroworld disaster, we must consider not only how or why this happened, but how we can prevent this from happening again.

Daily Arts Writer Madeleine Virginia Gannon be reached at