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Survival / June 11, 2017

How to not die in a crowd crush

Written by: Brad Shannon

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. 

Be particularly wary of unplanned crowds, like those produced by protests or street events.

3. Go with the flow

If you are caught in a high-density crowd surge, Wertheimer says, stay calm and patient. Think of the crowd as a riptide—your best way out is to move to the side, not against the current. Time your movements around the ebb and flow of the crowd, and ease your way out of the center. Try not to navigate toward walls or other solid barriers.

Crowd behavior expert Bruce Cameron advises moving with your elbows out to the side if possible. Find cover behind poles or other fixed objects, which produce eddies in the crowd flow. Keep possessions at chest level, and never stop to recover any item that you’ve dropped—if you shoe comes off or your phone hits the ground, just consider it gone.


4. Don’t. fall. dowN.

In a dense crowd, your top priority should be to stay on your feet. Kneeling, sitting, or falling to the ground will produce a gap in the crowd, which will likely be filled in a manner of seconds. This phenomenon is called progressive crowd collapse, and it can cause tramplings even in relatively calm crowds.

Support those in the crowd around you, and do your best to pull up anyone who slips or stumbles. If you do fall to the ground, protect your head with your arms and bring your legs close to your body. Stand up again as soon as pressure from the crowd eases.

Do you have questions or comments about this piece? Email them to [email protected]

about the author

Brad Shannon

Brad Shannon is a cyclist, runner, triathlete; soccer coach, player and referee; gear / gadget lover; and storyteller. He’s a fan of dogs and the weather and craft beer scene in northern Colorado. His current favorite item is his 3D-printed Inconel bottle opener.

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