If you’ve been to public events that attract massive crowds—pride marches, mud-splattered music festivals, bacon fests—you might have looked around and wondered, What if something bad happened right now?
“History has taught us that catastrophic things can happen when large groups of people assemble,” paramedic Ginger Locke, associate professor of EMS (emergency medical services) professions at Austin Community College and host of the Medic Mindset podcast, tells SELF. “Structural collapse, fires, and mass shootings come to mind.”
No matter how great your capacity for imagining the worst-case scenario, these kinds of events are relatively rare.
“Statistically, you are safer [in a crowd] than you are when driving a car,” Nate Morrish-Smith, an emergency medical technician (EMT) and national representative of the International Association of EMTs and Paramedics (IAEP), tells SELF.
Let’s run a few numbers. There are around 32,000 deaths and 2 million injuries from car accidents in the United States every year, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). Compare that to, say, the number of casualties resulting from mass shootings. In 2017, there were 30 active shooter incidents in the United States (as in, one or more people trying to kill others in a public space), according to the Federal Bureau of Investigation. Together, those episodes killed 138 people (excluding the shooters) and injured 591 others.
But not every car accident makes the news, while the intense media coverage of public disasters can lend the impression that catastrophe is inevitable. Not only are the chances surprisingly low, you can actually take steps to keep yourself safe in case something does actually happen when you’re at a huge event. Here are some tips from emergency responders on how to stay as safe as possible when in a giant crowd.
1. Wear shoes that aren’t likely to fall off, trip you up, or be hard to run in if necessary.
Yes, this is the type of advice a parent might share, so we understand if you want to roll your eyes. But choosing a pair of shoes that won’t fall off when you run, cause you to trip or slip, or leave your delicate feet vulnerable to injury is actually one of the easiest ways to avoid getting hurt in a crowd.
Minor wounds like sprains and cuts resulting from simple falls tend to be some of the top injuries at large events, Locke says. To make falling less likely, go for a practical pair of boots, sneakers, or another sturdy shoe you can depend on in an emergency. Skip options like flip-flops, which Morrish-Smith notes don’t offer much traction and can become a tripping hazard. Similarly, giant heels can make it harder to run or leave you more vulnerable to a twisted ankle.
On a related note, Morrish-Smith advises against taking off your shoes at a huge event (unless you need to kick off heels to run, for instance). You could easily cut your feet, leaving you open to infection, and having your shoes strewn about just gives you another thing to trip over.
2. Consider wearing clothes that are pretty hard to yank on and unlikely to make you stumble.
Tell your wardrobe we’re sorry: Much like the footwear tip, it can make sense to consider your outfit for a huge event with an eye on safety, Morrish-Smith says.
Picture a stranger accidentally stepping on your gorgeous, billowy maxi-dress or tugging the hood of your sweatshirt in a panic while evacuating, making it hard for you to run—or even breathe.
You might want to save those kinds of options for less crowded events. Or you could wear them anyway, knowing that chances are nothing’s going to happen. Calculated risks, people!
3. Hydrate before and during the event.
“Dehydration and fainting are very common at cramped and crowded events,” Locke explains. “The prolonged standing and the heat generated from a crowd can impair someone's normally resilient physiology.” This is as true at something like an outdoor music festival (where being under the hot sun all day can really take its toll) as it is at a packed indoor event where there’s not a lot of fresh air circulating.
That’s why Locke advises making sure you’re well-hydrated before the event (clear or pale yellow pee is a good sign) and regularly sipping water while you’re there.
4. Go easy on the alcohol.
For starters, alcohol has a mild diuretic effect, meaning it can make you pee more. This can contribute to dehydration if you’re not on top of your water intake.
Keeping your drink tally low also removes the risk factor of drunkenness. It’s no secret that excessive amounts of alcohol can cause issues like a loss of motor control, delayed reactions, and poor decision-making, but so can even small changes in your blood alcohol content, according to the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism. In a packed crowd, this can make it harder to keep your wits about you and get out quickly if necessary, Morrish-Smith says.
As we mentioned above, the odds of something calamitous happening at a public event are low. This doesn’t mean you can never have a drink at an event if you feel like it. But if you’re committed to drinking in moderation, Locke recommends having a glass of water in between each alcoholic beverage.
5. Charge your phone fully beforehand.
“Should you become injured or separated from your group, you can use the device to phone for help or phone your group,” Morrish-Smith says. And if you’re attending an event alone, you should definitely have your phone so you can alert emergency responders, friends, or family if something happens.
Your phone can’t help you if it’s dead, though. “Go into the event with a fully-charged phone and carry it in a deep or zippered pocket,” Locke says. That way you have the advantage of having your phone on you in case your purse gets lost or stolen. (Be reasonably aware of people around you so you don’t get pickpocketed.) For an event lasting more than a couple hours, keep your phone on low-battery mode if it has one or bring a portable charger. Or both!
6. Come up with a plan in case you and your friends get separated.
A fully charged phone is great unless…you can’t find it. Or you drop it on the ground and the screen shatters. Or the venue you’re in is a dead zone. The list goes on.
So, pretend it’s the ‘90s for a minute, and make a backup plan with your friends in case of emergency. “Before cell phones, groups of people attending an event would chart out a plan [like], ‘If we get separated, everyone meet back at this location at this time,’” Locke explains.
Another trick? “Memorize a few key phone numbers,” Locke says, so you can call your friends or family even if your phone—and its contacts list—are gone.
7. Identify all of the venue’s exits, especially the ones closest to you.
Knowing the way you came in isn’t enough. If panic ensues, many people will instinctively try to get out the way they entered. You need alternatives.
Morrish-Smith suggests scoping out the exits upon arriving, or even checking them out beforehand. “Most venues provide maps online, so you can have a general idea prior to attending about where exits are,” he says.
Do you need to remain on the fringes of a concert close to the exit, when all you want is to be in the middle of the crowd as your favorite artist gives the show of a lifetime? No. But it’s smart to figure out where to bolt if something happens. Otherwise, you could waste precious seconds trying to find an exit in a crisis.
And if you don’t care about what’s happening at the end of the event—your team is sorely losing, or the band is going into its third encore song—consider leaving early so you’re not exiting at the same time as everyone else, Morrish-Smith says.
8. In the rare event that the crowd stampedes, try to move diagonally to the edge of the group.
“Avoid going to the center of the group. It’s best to stay on the perimeter,” Morrish-Smith says. The CDC recommends that you assume a boxer-like stance as you go: hands up and in front of your chest (this gives you a bit more room to breathe), feet planted firmly on the ground when you’re not moving.
If you find yourself smack dab in the middle of the stampede, though, the CDC recommends moving with the flow of people instead of trying to stay put. Whenever the crowd stops moving, head toward the edge diagonally rather than trying to go straight. It’s easier to move through those gaps than to try to squeeze past people in front of you.
Finally, if you do fall down in a crowd, focus on protecting your body by curling up into the fetal position (and covering your head), then get back up as soon as you safely can.
9. If a fire alarm goes off or you smell suspicious smoke, get out immediately.
If there’s a fire (or even a hint of one), move towards an exit ASAP. Morrish-Smith suggests staying close to a wall and following that to the exit if you can. This will help you avoid the bottleneck that tends to form in the center of a crowd and also navigate if smoke is causing poor visibility. Since smoke rises, he also advises trying to stay as low as possible if you’re having a hard time breathing.
Actually getting down on your hands and knees isn’t always safe or possible if the crowd is chaotic, however. In that case, stay as low as you can while moving quickly and covering your nose and mouth with something like your shirt—this can help keep some smoke out of your airways, Morrish-Smith says.
10. Take deep, calming breaths, and remind yourself that you know how to get out of this situation.
One of the best things you can do is try to stay as calm as possible even if you’re rightfully feeling terrified. “The [calmer] you can keep your body and mind, the better,” Locke says. “But that's easier said than done.”
When you sense a threat, your body catapults into flight-or-fight mode, kicking off a physiological chain reaction to enable you to escape or fend off a threat. This results in effects like an elevated heart rate, heightened anxiety, heavier breathing, and even pupil dilation, which allows more light to reach your eyes. “The stress response is adaptive, primal, and deeply ingrained,” Locke explains. Sometimes this survival instinct is good, but sometimes it’s disproportionate to the actual immediate threat. “This is where you see unnecessary chaos,” Locke says. “People pushing and clawing in crowds, people getting stepped on or trampled.”
Overriding this instinctual response can be tricky. Deep breathing may help, Locke says, as can positive self-talk, which is literally telling yourself you know how to get out and are going to be OK. It can also become easier with practice.
“Professional rescuers have to train extensively in what has been called ‘stress inoculation’ to learn to think and act in high stress conditions,” Locke says. Of course, you probably don’t have that kind of training at your disposal, which is why it’s great that you’re already thinking about how you’d react in an emergency situation. It’s a mental practice of sorts. So, if you really want to be prepared, don’t just read these tips and forget about them. Brush up on them again before you go to crowded events so they’re fresh in your mind.
While all of the above tactics can be helpful, remember that the specifics of the situation will dictate your exact course of action.
If any public safety officers who happen to be there are offering helpful instructions, be sure to follow those, too. Finally, while it’s smart to keep all of these safety tips in the back of your mind just in case, don’t forget to have a good time.