First Response

After many years working on the road as a production coordinator and tour manager for famous and infamous rock and roll bands, Eric Colby has settled in California as the house manager at the San Francisco War Memorial and Performing Arts Center.

Colby—a faculty member of IAVM’s Academy for Venue Safety & Security (AVSS)—is now responsible for the safety and comfort of a very different type of audience, and his session at the upcoming Performing Arts Managers Conference deals with how to better handle emergencies in the workplace.

Your session is titled “Immediate Responders – De-Mystifying the Emergency.” What are some of the biggest misconceptions about emergencies?

The reason we’re calling it “Immediate Responders” is because the very term “First Responders” is a bit misleading. Rarely is the first person on the scene a police officer, fire fighter, or EMT. We are, and our session will focus on what to do in the meantime until the first responders arrive. With that in mind, here are a few common misconceptions:

It can’t happen here.

The truth is it can, and at some point in your career it will. You can, and should, do everything possible to plan and prepare. Do everything right with the resources at your disposal—and the bad thing may still happen. How you respond and recover is as important as what you do to plan and prepare.

Somebody else has already called 911.

Maybe they did. Maybe they didn’t. You better check. And if they did—what did they say? Does the First Responder know where to go when they arrive? Seconds count.

This is taking forever.

One of the more peculiar things I’ve noticed in emergency situations is how fuzzy perception gets: “Why is this taking so long for them to respond?” and “It all happened so fast” are two common things we hear afterward. Part of your job, after your initial response as an immediate responder, is to be reassuring that help is on the way (so you first better make sure it is). You need to remember the event is far more traumatic for the person(s) you are assisting than it is for you. It’s not their job to record time—it’s yours. Pay attention to everything that occurs and when it does. You will be asked later, maybe in a deposition.

People will panic, and I won’t know what to do.

What is the first thing we are told to do in an emergency? Remain calm. Most people actually do. As a leader at your venue, it is vitally important that you exude calm. Your outward disposition is contagious and in unfamiliar moments your staff and patrons will look to you to determine how they should act. While some of this stuff is instinctual, much of it is not. It is, however, something you can learn and practice.

Safety is guaranteed in your venue.

As much as we’d like to be able to guarantee safety, the truth is (as your lawyer will tell you) we cannot. We can, and will, however, do everything possible to minimize risk and provide a safe environment. It is reasonable for us to expect our visitors/occupants to take some responsibility for their own safety as well. If we tell them where the emergency exits are, we expect them to move in the right direction when asked to do so. Basic principles of risk management should guide your thinking.


Should staff members be concerned about potential lawsuits that may arise as a result of their involvement in an emergency?

Good question. The short answer is yes—but let’s ask it a different way: To what degree should I be concerned about a potential lawsuit here? A popular misconception about lawsuits is you need a good reason to file one. You don’t. Anybody can file a lawsuit at any time for any reason. So sure, be concerned. However, as long as you are doing the right thing, as any reasonable person would, and following the steps of the training provided by your employer, then you have done nothing wrong and you shouldn’t have to do anything more than testify.

Doing nothing, on the other hand, is negligent and you are far more likely to get sued for that. In our work, we assume the risk of being sued by patrons/potential plaintiffs who have a reasonable expectation we will look out for them and their safety. It comes with the territory. So it is in everybody’s best interest to meet that expectation.

Should all staff go through some kind of emergency training? 

Yes, absolutely. If your staff is not trained, the results can be catastrophic no matter how you measure it: lives, personal health, money, damage to your reputation, etc. Training won’t necessarily keep the bad thing from happening, but it sure can minimize the risk. IAVM’s Trained Crowd Manager program is a good place to start, and as a member of its faculty I strongly recommend sending somebody on your staff to our Academy of Venue Safety and Security.

There are a lot of options for how to train your staff, from basic first-aid training including AED/CPR to full-scale fire drills. In reality, it depends on your resources. Most municipalities require venue operators to maintain a trained crowd manager to occupant ratio of 1:250. There are numerous resources online for training through FEMA, NFPA, and Red Cross, some of it free or at a very reasonable cost to you. You should also check with your local emergency management offices to see what they offer.

What’s a “show-stopper”?

“Show-stopper” is just a term I made up. What it means to me is just what it sounds like: an unplanned event that dictates in the interest of safety we stop the show. All venues are different and as such will have different definitions and ways to determine what kind of emergency is indeed a show-stopper. I work in a performing arts center where expectations of quiet in our auditorium are a chief concern for attendees and performers. This is not the case for a venue hosting an NBA basketball game, for instance.

A fire alarm going off is the most obvious show-stopper, and one for which we have protocols in place, but what about somebody having a grand mal seizure in the middle of the fourth row 10 minutes into Act II of the ballet? Somebody experiencing a medical emergency or some sort of general unrest may be the sort of thing for which we have to hit pause and bring in the curtain, or it may not be… Can it be isolated to where only a small portion of the audience is disturbed? Or is it a heart attack that will bring in a lot of noisy firemen? Can the patient be safely moved out of the auditorium to be treated where only an isolated segment of the audience/performers will be disturbed? What if someone dies peacefully in a seat with 10 minutes left in the opera? Who makes the call to stop? How do you inform the performers? The audience? Your bosses? Do you re-start?

Have you or your staff ever faced a show-stopper?

Yes. We have had to evacuate the building during a performance. And we’ve had some close calls. The aforementioned seizure in the fourth row is not something I made up.

Anything else you’d like to add?

First, thanks for asking such thoughtful questions, and thanks to everyone reading too! My intent here is for my answers to raise more questions for readers about their own venues. One thing almost universal about an emergency is in the moment it occurs it won’t seem real, but that passes quickly. For some people, their mind goes blank, and they forget momentarily what to do. It’s normal, and it’s okay. Make sure your individual staff members know their roles, and make sure those roles are manageable. Keep it simple and work as a team. Help is on the way. Your job as an immediate responder is like anything else. Observe and report. Communicate clearly. Summon help. Provide reassurance. Demonstrate confident leadership. FM