Joshua Hind: We are asking way, way too much of contracted security guards
Event veterans that have the skill to spot patrons in distress or alert you to a potential crowd surge are few in number, in high demand, and expensive to hire.
By: Joshua Hind
After you’ve watched the videos of crowds scaling fences and crashing through ticket gates, or attendees climbing camera platforms begging for help as the surging crowd began to crush itself, it’s hard to believe that the planners of the Astroworld Fest in Houston, a tragic debacle which left nine young concertgoers dead and hundreds more injured, were ever in control of the situation.
While some of the best minds in the field of crowd management and event safety weigh in on the probable causes of the crowd surge, a new article in Rolling Stone has turned a spotlight on the security guards, and the culpability of private security in general, a high turnover, low-wage business focused on filling orders with warm bodies, seemingly regardless of their actual experience or competency. In Canada, security work is one of the easiest routes to employment for young people and particularly recent immigrants with little Canadian work experience, but, when it comes to live events, it’s also an often impossible mix of customer support, crowd management, law enforcement, and emergency medical services that requires years of training and on-the-ground experience to do well.
The apparent failures of this type of security, which is often referred to as “contract security” (not be confused with “private security,” which usually means expensive bodyguards), are not unique to Houston. I’ve been working in large public events for more than 20 years and contract security has always been one of the great planning dilemmas. If you want to get insured, you need lots of security, but every one of those guards must be treated as part asset and part liability.
Event sites, especially festivals with multiple stages, are expansive (the site in Houston was over 1,000,000 square feet in total space), and a well-designed event site, just like a well-designed building, needs plenty of entrances and exits, each of which must be adequately staffed. Guards are needed in front of the stage, in the crowd, at backstage access points, and around critical infrastructure. On top of all that you also need a team of roving guards to patrol the site looking for issues. Add it up and a large event site could have dozens or hundreds of security guards doing a variety of jobs, all of which fall under the catch-all description of “security.” On a big summer weekend at the height of event season, a large city like Toronto might have thousands of guards working dozens of sites. How do you find that many good people who can bear the responsibility of preserving public safety? Generally, you don’t.
It only requires a two-week commitment and a little patience to become a security guard in Ontario. So long as you have a clean criminal record, you can sign up for the required training: 40 hours on law and security, plus another 30-40 hours of first aid. This training is often performed by the very companies that do the hiring, which can greatly affect priorities in accurate skills testing. Hit all those marks and mere weeks after deciding to become a security guard you could be faced with a horde of concertgoers busting through the fence you’ve just been ordered to protect.
When I started in live events, it was all on the technical side, setting up lighting, sound and stages, and I didn’t pay much attention to what happened on the other side of the crowd barrier. About 15 years ago I started working on Nuit Blanche, Toronto’s overnight outdoor art event, and it was during those long nights watching hundreds of thousands and then millions of people that I developed a sense of how they act in large groups and how unpredictable they can be. This isn’t meant to sound like a superpower, it’s just a honed instinct. It took me well over a decade of steady work and constant observation to develop some ability to sense when a crowd might turn ugly. That experience can’t be replicated with two weeks of training, but that’s exactly what’s often expected of security guards.
Contract security firms are magnets for new Canadians, simply because it’s accessible work for them, a first move into the local job market. Because it’s low wage, it’s also high turnover, and because everyone needs security guards to fulfill their insurance requirements, security firms are regularly hiring. Not only might you get a guard with little to no event experience, that person might not even have a strong command of English. The best event planners will have their own security coordinator who takes stock of the guards at the start of each shift and assigns them roles that best match their abilities, but when you’re talking about dozens of guards, it’s possible you’ll run out of seemingly competent people before you run of jobs requiring them.
There are security firms that specialize in live events, staffed with event veterans that have the skill to spot patrons in distress or alert you to a potential crowd surge, but like the best people in any industry, they’re few in number, regularly in high demand, and they cost a good deal more money. Even the best-funded event will have a mix of seasoned pros and contract security.
Nearly all events require police, but they aren’t a replacement for security. Police are arguably the most useful presence because they come with unmistakable authority, but they typically do their own planning for large events, so you can never be sure just how many will be on site. Even if you hire police on contract, a practice in Toronto known as “paid duty,” they sometimes won’t show up in the numbers you expect. You might put in an order for 50 cops and get 10. It can take a lot of negotiation and relationship-building to integrate police effectively into an event plan, and I know only a few planners who’ve done it very well.
All of this creates a delicate balancing act for planners, which they then have to back up with effective infrastructure. Your perimeter fences better be good, because you can’t expect a newly minted security guard making minimum wage to stand in front of a rush of people when the fences fail. Your design for the audience space in front of the stage must have all the necessary segmentation and access points because your guards may not be able to spot a problem before it gets out of hand.
In the wake of the tragedy in Houston, it’s time to take a long, hard look at security, but we should be careful not to be too hard on the guards themselves. They’re regular people trying to make a living who get tossed into high-pressure situations with little warning and training, and if they screw up people can get hurt. That’s an outsized burden for people at the bottom of the wage scale.
The best planners work with the shortcomings of contract security, add specialists and police to the mix, and pull off safe events. But with thousands of events happening across Canada every year, the weakness of any one of those ingredients can lead to tragedy, and we don’t have to accept that security guards are undertrained and underpaid. After nearly two years of COVID, crowds seem eager for live music, and Houston could be an early warning that audiences won’t behave as they did before the pandemic, so we don’t have much time to identify and implement necessary change.
For the people at Astroworld, we’re already too late.
A 24-year veteran of the live entertainment industry, Joshua Hind is a planner and designer for major live events in Toronto. He is also the original designer of the world-famous TORONTO sign, and a creator of three award-winning shows and four theatres with Cirque du Soleil. He has completed training in Incident Management from the City of Toronto, Province of Ontario and the Toronto Police Service. Follow Joshua on Twitter at @joshuahind.
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