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Sat 20 Nov 2010 12:00 AM

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Safe and secure

An onlooker would take the average Middle East concert-goer to be a pretty well behaved bunch that wouldn’t pose the same crowd control issues faced at events in other parts of the world. But does reality match this observation? Perhaps not, according to the First Security Group.

Safe and secure
FSG says UAE law differs from countries ,like the US, as guards cannot use force on unruly punters, meaning they need to be more educated and sensitive when diffusing conflicts.

For men that know more than most about the potentially deadly
power of huge crowds, Malcolm Mandeville and Sergio Rodriguez are friendly, chatty,
people-people. Mandeville, marketing manager at First Security Group (FSG) and Rodriguez,
director of operations of the firm’s guarding department, are quick to quash any
attempts to brand the company as a ‘security’ firm, instead reiterating their focus
on safety. “If you look at an event, people say, we’ll do the security, but they
won’t know anything about safety. For us, it’s all the same. If there’s no safety
at an event, your security suffers, and of course if there’s no security at an event,
that’s a safety issue for the patrons, the acts and the management,” says Mandeville.

Now a major player in the provision of event safety and security
in the UAE, FSG has an impressive heritage, having been formed in 2004 by 10 retired
Dubai Police officers. The firm’s board of directors now boasts three Major Generals
- Major General Sharafuddin Al Sharaf, Major General Nasser Al Sayed Abdul Razaq
and Major General Abdul Aziz Mohammed Al Bannai. But just as they are quick to highlight
the safety element of their services, Mandeville and Rodriguez say the informal
link to Dubai’s
public sector in no way results in nepotism.

“All of the generals are very much involved and they all care
about the way we conduct the business. And I don’t say that because we have to deal
with them almost daily – they are always trying to drive us to go that extra step,”
explains Rodriguez.

The AED20 million LLC’s security division has about qualified
300 guards that Mandeville says are constantly being up-skilled to ensure that they
have the expertise to handle a situation should one arise. “Someone that’s not trained
correctly, when there’s a problem, will be just as useless as someone that’s not
supposed to be there at all. So now you have two problems,” he says.

Ensuring the safety of patrons at an event is one thing, but
Mandeville says there is also a commercial element to their role. “It’s about protecting
the client’s image as well as crowd safety.

“Events are corporate
– you’re going to see a lot of international and national brands putting their name
out there and associating with an event. If the event is a disaster and people get
hurt, or there are serious moral issues, then you have a major international brand
that’s associated with that and that’s not good marketing.”

Local considerations

Rodriguez and Mandeville agree that when it comes to doing their
job in the Middle East, as opposed to other parts
of the world, they face unique challenges.

“If you’ve ever tried to stand in line in Dubai even at any normal
place where people stand in line, it’s more challenging than anywhere else to respect
people’s private space; and at a concert over here, it becomes even more challenging,”
says Mandeville. “Crowd pressure is our real issue.”

July’s tragic stampede at Germany’s Love Parade festival left
21 people dead and over 500 injured and brought to light the potentially deadly
power of a crowd.

Experts say panic comes from an ancient impulse that perceives
danger and reacts to survive. There’s neither clear thinking nor humility behind
the instinct. The tendency is to conform and copy what others are doing, crazy or
not. Stampedes are minds gone astray, literally being scared out of your wits.

Rodriuez says ensuring emergency evacuation points are sufficient
is one thing, but keeping the crowd relatively calm and minimising anti-social behaviours
is just as important and it is these concerns that have been at the forefront of
some of the most challenging scenarios he’s come across.

“At one concert here, the performer was 20 minutes late and the
crowd were really getting frustrated. They were getting tired but they were still
really excited. It started getting a little worrying and then you start to think,
because it has happened before, what if this person doesn’t show up? How are we
going to control the crowd? Because half of those guys are already pumped, a lot
of them are drunk, how are going to let them know and get them out safely?” he says.

“That’s one of the things we look at in our training. If that
happens, how are you going to react?” He says management consultation, forward planning
and contingency plans are essential when assessing the risk profile of an event.

“A full analysis needs to be undertaken before an event – the
style of event, the location, the crowd, even the music, are you going to sell food,
alcohol, are minors allowed – any of these things can completely change the situation.
It’s like playing chess, you sit down and try to win over your opponent, try to
stay one step ahead and try to predict their moves.”

Artist support

Mandeville admits however, that even the most thorough planning
can be jeopardised by the performers themselves.

“We did the Akon concert here and he has a thing where it comes
out and walks through the crowd and we begged him not to, we knew something could
happen that could put him and the crowd in danger,” he says.

In the end, the rapper did walk out into the crowd, with worrying
consequences. “He had his bodyguards and bouncers with him that are as big as a
room and they were asking us for help. People were trying to tear his clothes off
him – and these are his fans doing this. It was one of our most frightening moments.
Sometimes the act or the stars themselves are our largest obstacle to maintaining
safety,” explains Mandeville.

“This isn’t the same as places in the US, for example,
where a performer jumps off stage and crowd-surfs for a bit and then they’ll pass
them back and generally there’s not that much of a problem. That’s not legal here
but it wouldn’t work even if it was,” adds Rodriguez.

By the book

Legislation bought into force in 2005 under the Law for Security
Service Providers and Important Trade Sectors, stipulates that a company is in breech
it employs someone freelance or as an employee without a licence or with an expired
licence, with a fine ranging between Dh1,000 to Dh60,000 for one violation or a
prison term of up to six months. Repeat offenders can also be shut down.

Mandeville says the impact of the law was felt by FSG, but that
the cmpnay already had much of what it regulated in place. “In the early days, there
were a few of us who had experience in event security and we knew some people that
could do events professionally but from day one the board stressed that they wanted
things to be professional, professional, professional. No more of these funny events
that aren’t above board – everything the company was to do was to be above board,
had to have the full support of the police and to adhere to the legislation,” he
says.

“We’ve registered all our events with the police, all the people
that have worked with us have been registered with the police, so in case there
is a problem, something as silly as a fight, we’re covered. And that staff member
is covered because he’s there working legally, under the umbrella of the company
and with the approval of the authorities, that’s always been very important for
us, to make sure it’s statutorily correct.”

He says the requirement to use guards that have been screened
and approved by the Dubai Police saw many of the “wild-cards” in the industry go
out of business. “The Police said, you have
to use these types of people, they have to be under your visa, you have to use a
pool of people they’ve been pre-approved, selected and screened by the Dubai Police.
That’s all fine, and it’s okay now. But in those days there weren’t enough people.
Then we had to use freelances – and that’s a very small group of people that we
know have clean criminal background checks.

To overcome this, FSG over-staffed its guarding division so that
after a period of formal training and on the job experience under a ‘buddy’ system,
everyone would be at the level required. “We now have a very nice core group of
about 300 guys that we’ve kept for many years that have event experience over many
years, not just one or two events,” says Rodriguez.

Back to school

Training is of major focus for FSG, which has set up its own
training centre that caters to external as well as internal parties. Internationally
accredited, the centre offers a range of health, safety and security related courses
including those under the internationally-recognised Safety Training Awards (STA).
“We are the World Safety Organisation member for the UAE and a part of the United
Nations. Everything we do is about standards,” explains Mandeville.

He says empowering staff to make decisions through the right
training can mean the difference between a close call and an outright disaster.
“If something goes wrong, by the time the supervisor runs across, maybe the incident
has escalated beyond control, it could become worse. When he’s on a position, he
is fully empowered to do everything he needs to do in that position. He knows the
consequences of mistakes, he knows the beneficial consequences of being proactive
and possibly stopping something happening before it happens.”

The importance of self-evaluation and continually upgrading skills
is also key for FSG, according to Rodriguez. “We’ll analyse the duties that need
to be performed [by each guard], we look at all the possible scenarios and we develop
a training programme – crowd control, risk management, confrontation,” he says.

“We don’t want to sell services to a client where we know we’re
going to have a problem. There’s no point in telling a client we’re perfect, we’re
marvellous, and then the day comes and it’s a disaster. For us, it’s about continuity,
we don’t just want your business now, we want it forever.”

And Mandeville says this attitude has meant a low rate of incident,
explaining that any form of violence or other behaviour that puts others at risk
is proactively avoided. “We feel that if it’s gotten to that point, we’ll review
what we’ve done because we’ll view that as our mistake. We’re very honest and open
about that You can’t provide for everything, there’s always one or two in a crowd
of 10,000, but we’ll go back and review what that happened and what we could have
done to de-escalate the situation.”

The burly myth

When presented with the myth of security staff being large and
brutish both Rodriguez and Mandeville laugh. “People used to tease us, they used
to come up to our gates and see normal, average guys and girls from our company,
and say ‘these guys aren’t security’,” explains Mandeville.

More seriously, he explains that putting what he calls big tough
guys as the first thing punters encounter when they arrive at an event can be intimidating
and can potentially create conflict. He says these particular guards are positioned
discretely where their strength can be a virtue if required. “We have big strong
guys in the pit in the front of the stage and they’re trained not only in how to
keep the crowd back but also how to help the crowd. We spend more people pulling
people off the main fence that are in the front of stage in general admission because
they’re getting crushed. Our pit guys aren’t interested in watching the show or
showing off their muscles, they’re helping people who might have problems with crowd
pressure, heat – Heat exhaustion is one of the most critical things we face given
temperatures in this part of the world.”

Rodriguez says that at a concert, the firm designs front stage
barriers on an angle and has barriers at intervals through the crowd space to help
manage the first few rows where the main crowd pressure is. It’s something that
he says FSG has spent a lot of time researching and ultimately, a front barrier
in a triangular design helps to even out the crowd and lessen pressure. “People
here are a little les respectful of others personal space, especially at a concert,
right at the front. There is a lot of pushing and shoving out here,” he says.

When problems do arise, and guards need to intervene, UAE law
stipulates that bodily contact is to be avoided at all costs. “In the US they’ll grab
your hands behind your back if you start causing trouble, and by pain, you would
react. Here, you cannot do that. If a guy becomes a aggressive, the best thing you
can do is put two or three guys around them to control them, to hold them. You cannot
hurt them, touch them, scratch them. So guards here have to be more patient, more
gentle, more restrained, more educated, that in most other countries,” Rodriguez
explains.

When one person causing trouble turns into a crowd though, FSG’s
contingency plans come into play and it all comes down to safety. “At that time
it’s not about the money, it’s not about the sponsors; it’s about getting people
home safely. If an incident happens, not only are you going to lose money but you’re
going to have to answer to lives,” says Rodriguez.

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