I’m not crazy about crowds. Like the rest of the Shoulders of Giants team, I generally prefer lakes, rivers, and trails to nightclubs and concert venues—but even I sometimes find myself surrounded by shoulders, elbows, and armpits.
And whenever I do, my head fills with visions of tramplings and human stampedes. So I called up three of the world’s foremost crowd experts for some tips on staying alive when a crowd turns dangerous.
1. Don’t worry about panic
When most of us think about crowd disasters, we imagine a wild-eyed, panicked mass of humanity trampling over itself in a mad dash toward the exits. But that’s not how crowd control professionals see it.
The real killer in crowds is not adrenaline, but density. When six or more people are packed together in a square meter of space, they lose the ability to move their limbs and often asphyxiate. And while this crush can definitely occur during a rapid exit, it can also occur near a stage or at any traffic bottleneck.
Paul Wertheimer, founder and head of Los Angeles-based Crowd Management Strategies, notes that it’s not panic that creates such situations, but failure to manage an event. So before entering a crowd, consider whether it has been organized with crowd safety in mind. Be particularly wary of the unplanned crowds that gather for protests or evacuations.
2. know your exit
Some crowds are more dangerous than others. With a trained eye, you can identify which crowds to be a part of and which areas within the crowd to avoid.
Be particularly wary of standing-room configurations, like those at street festivals or other general-admission events. These have the highest risks of overcrowding and are the most prone to chaos in emergency situations.
Identify the exits before you enter a crowded space, especially if the area is surrounded by fences or other barricades. If possible, position yourself near less obvious escape routes (a gap in the barricade, for example) instead of official exits. In an emergency, this will allow you to make a quick escape while avoiding potential bottlenecks.