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Practice makes perfect in case of emergency at event involving alcohol

MusicDining and DrinkingBars and ClubsLady Gaga

The staff at MaGerk's Pub in Bel Air has a plan in place in case of an emergency in the bar on a crowded night, but they've never practiced their response, especially not the entire staff.

But they think it's a good idea, Manager Melissa Davis said after a training session Tuesday night at the Bel Air Reckord Armory on Safe Alcohol Event Management sponsored by the Harford County Liquor Control Board.

"Drills are something we could all benefit from with all the staff," Davis said.

Davis and Event Sales and Marketing Manager Jennifer Topper were MaGerk's representatives at the seminar presented by Martin Johnson, a liquor license consultant from ID Training LLC. Others among the 50 or so at the seminar, centered around examples of what to do and what not to do, included liquor licensees from Harford County, local police, three liquor board members and a handful of liquor inspectors from other counties, five alone from Montgomery County, which has 1,000 liquor licenses.

Lou and Terri Ward, owners of The Bayou restaurant in Havre de Grace, were there together.

"We want to get some insight on how to handle some of the larger functions at the restaurant," Lou Ward said. When they add tents outside, they have twice the capacity they normally would.

"We consider this continuing education," Terri Ward said, "if there's anything new or anything we need to be aware of."

The Bayou doesn't have a lot of bar activity, the owners admitted, but it's good to be "constantly aware."

Where are the exits in the armory, Johnson asked the people attending the seminar, then pointed out one at the front of the armory and two at the rear.

"If a fireball erupts while we're in here, you know where to go," he said.

He wants the same thing to happen at any alcohol-related event.

"Our mission is to reduce the likelihood of negative outcomes at events that include alcohol service," he said.

Response plans critical

Response plans are critical, Johnson said, but they don't do any good if the entire staff hasn't practiced it, so he urged event managers to practice what they would do in an emergency situation.

He used two examples of places that failed to get all their customers out safely during an emergency: The Station nightclub in Warwick, R.I., where 100 people died after a pyrotechnics accident on Feb. 20, 2003 during a Great White concert, and E2 nightclub in Chicago, where 21 people died after two women got in a fight Feb. 17, 2003 and panic ensued when pepper spray was used.

The same night as the E2 incident, all of the guests at Fine Line Music Cafe, a two-story music venue in Minneapolis, escaped "without so much as a scratch" when pyrotechnics malfunctioned at a Lady Gaga concert. The venue was evacuated in two minutes.

"The staff previously has planned for an emergency, trained for an emergency and practiced for an emergency," Johnson said. "The owner took the time to do that. You know what that cost? Money. It doesn't matter, you have to invest."

In the first two scenarios, Johnson said, no one was in charge, there was no leadership and customers were panicking.

At The Station, 462 people were in the nightclub that had a capacity of 404.

"That's not all that many more, right?" Johnson asked. "But 58 people can make a big difference when they're all trying to get out the door."

When the pyrotechnics malfunctioned during the concert, he said, people just assumed it was all part of the show. No one told the audience there was a fire, that they needed to get out and how to do it.

"The only comment was from the lead singer, 'Wow, that's not good,'" he said.

There was no PA announcement, no sprinkler system, no evacuation plan, no one in charge.

"It was just kind of running itself," Johnson said.

Of the 100 who died, 31 of them were at the main entrance, because they were trying to get out the way they came in.

"They don't know where else to leave from," he said.

No one pointed out the exit door next to the stage, and when a few people who did see it tried to leave through it, a bouncer told them it was a band exit only.

"Really? A band exit only when there's a fire?" Johnson said.

"There were four functioning exits, but 31 died at the entrance because they didn't know where to go," he said.

At E2, a bar above a high-end restaurant, two girls got in a fight that ultimately grew to about 15 people. Trained security used pepper spray and the girl who started the fight was escorted out of the bar.

Though the fight was over, the pepper spray was moving through the air-conditioning system and people started to get sick, some fainted.

"Panic sets in. No one knows why everyone is choking and said 'I'm getting the hell out,'" Johnson said.

The exits weren't lit, and the crowd estimated at 1,150 to 1,500 people (in a place with a capacity of 240 that before the event had been ordered to shut down) were all trying to funnel out one door, the one they came in.

After the incident, 11 building code violations were found, including entrance and exit doors that opened inward instead of outward.

The 21 people who died were crushed to death.

Successful evacuation

Compare that to Fine Line in Minneapolis, he said.

"They had immediate response, someone in charge, leadership ordered everyone to evacuate. Everyone knew what to do because they had practiced," Johnson said. "No one was dead, no one was injured, and they were evacuated in 120 seconds. Two minutes."

He urged bars, clubs and restaurants, anyone who plans to have a large event where liquor is served, to have an emergency plan, and to have a Maryland State-certified Crowd Manager, who is assigned responsibility of maintaining safety of occupants and implementing evacuation in case of an emergency.

"It's not just being there, it's doing something when something happens," he said.

The person's name who is on the liquor license is the person who is ultimately responsible in case of an emergency, he said. It's important to have written policies for employees to follow, on all sorts of subjects.

"We expect employees to rise to a standard, but we don't give them the skills to get there," he said.

Written policies are needed on how to address customer ages, dress codes, searches, when to intervene when someone's being disorderly, how to eject someone or ban someone from a site.

Problem customers

Johnson pointed out Bel Air Police Department's procedure to ban problem customers, those who routinely cause trouble in any of the downtown establishments.

"You have trouble people? You want to get rid of them? They're a continuing problem? Ban them," he said. "Bel Air Police Department has a procedure to do that."

Overall, he said, it's important not to just have a plan, but to work on it and have everyone involved, because if everyone knows what the others are doing, things are going to go much smoother in an emergency.

Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun
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