The Astroworld Music Festival: Preparedness, emergency management, and the making of a disaster.

Andrew D. Grossman, PhD.

The disaster at the Astroworld music festival on November 6, 2021, is a prime example of how poor pre-planning and inadequate response left ten dead and twenty-seven injured—all crushed by a surging crowd. 

Emergency management entails three main areas: Pre-planning preparation; mitigation measures; and the full-scale deployment of first responders. In my first blog, I summarized the importance of situational awareness (SA) and its role in emergency planning and response; in this blog we can stipulate that there was no SA, resulting in a late, haphazard, and a deadly mass casualty response. The failure of first responders at the Astroworld concert demonstrated the lack of any real-time information once the crowd began to move as one up against the stage barriers and highlights my remarks in the first Insights entry on the importance of SA. 

In this second blog post, I offer some remarks on one of the of three phases of disaster management: preplanning preparedness and suggest that a common GIS-driven platform in preplanning should have been in place that would have been helpful in limiting injuries and loss of life. Had proper pre-planning taken place, it would have been obvious to all that a different kind of comprehensive safety architecture for the Astroworld music festival was vital. 

Based on press reports, both a private security firm that collaborated with the artist and local police and community first responders (EMS, etc.) were involved in preplanning for the Astroworld concert. How much they communicated with one another is still under investigation, but the facts on the ground and the results make it acutely clear not much communication was taking place before the concert. Video of patrons pushing their way into the venue (before the concert even began) shows that, from the beginning, all facets of security for the concert were in disarray. The video is a precursor to the disaster that would happen a few hours later–not one person seems to have understood this. A chilling piece to watch, it nevertheless unveils how the lack of planning and preparedness can result in a debacle.

Competent pre-planning identified key deficiencies in safety and had them covered by multiple layers of staff and security. The chaos revealed in the video is an example of why a GIS platform such as the one used in Layers and Legends is so important. In addition, and most important in large public events such as a concert, using the Layers and Legends platform would have identified the arrangements inside the concert space. In fact, I would argue that with the kind of planning tools offered by Layers and Legends, the debacle that took place could have been mitigated in at least five arenas of emergency management:

1) Exits would have been identified and clearly located before the concert. Most important, the lack of exits would have been identified as well.

2) The entrances to the concert would have been identified and staffed before the concert. Given the size of the crowd, a different method for entering the venue could have been implemented.

3) First responders, had they had a common platform such as the one we use in Layers and Legends, would have had real-time data about the spatial location of the stage in relation to the crowd—pre-planning would have indicated there was no space between the crowd and the stage, just a standard concert “fence,” upon which many would die or be injured—and all entrance locations would have been identified and they could have been used in an organized manner as exits. 

4) GIS-based preplanning would have noted all electronic-related aspects of the concert, including the ability to shut the act down right away. As it was, when the emergency began, there was no way to turn off the music or communicate with the surging crowd. Tragically, the concert continued for 40 minutes while people, including a 9-year-old boy, were being crushed to death.

5) Where were the first responders? Press reports after the disaster noted there was a clear understaffing of first responders. Proper preparedness planning would have easily identified this problem. In addition, local police were not placed near exits, and crowd control in conjunction with police on horseback was, at best, minuscule. Finally, EMS first responders were not in the right places. All of this could have been mitigated by proper pre-planning and enhanced using a common GIS-based platform across all layers of response. 

Finally, the pre-planning for the Astroworld music festival bordered on malpractice. SA was, for all intents and purposes, nonexistent when it was needed most. Layers and Legends offers the kind of technical capacity to increase SA during an emergency, and just as important, the capacity to recognize obvious points of failure before a tragedy takes place.