What Big Rock & Roll Disasters Can Teach Us About Emergency Response

In this Forbes piece, Ruth Blatt writes:

“In 2000 at a Pearl Jam show at Denmark’s Roskilde Festival, a crowd trampling killed nine people. The band continued to play for 20 minutes, unaware. In 2011 a stage roof collapse at a Sugarland concert at the Indiana State Fair killed seven people. The weather service had been reporting that damaging winds would be hitting the area for 30 hours, yet no actions were taken until minutes before the collapse. At a Great White show at the Station nightclub in Rhode Island in 2003, pyrotechnics set off a fire in the club, yet many fans stayed in their spots. The fire ultimately killed 100 people. Sometimes the greatest challenge in dealing with an unexpected event is figuring out that it is even happening.

Below, Blatt’s lessons from rock & roll disasters about the difficulty in noticing and responding to an unexpected problem:

  • Normalcy bias: Quite literally, we don’t expect the unexpected. Blatt writes, “Denmark’s Roskilde Festival was considered a paragon for safety in the festival industry, according to professors Claus Rerup of the Ivey Business School at Western University, Canada and Morten Thanning Vendelø of the Copenhagen Business School, who conducted an in-depth study of the crowd trampling incident. Despite the rise in aggressive dancing like moshing and crowd surfing, the festival organizers had never stopped a show for safety reasons in the festival’s 29 years of operation, though there were a couple of times where musicians stopped the show because of bottles thrown on the stage. The 27 security guards who faced the crowd at the Pearl Jam concert in 2000 recognized that the crowd was intense that night, but that was expected. A lethal crowd collapse was not.”

The key point she makes: “Since the organization had no experience stopping a concert, having never done it before, officials found it difficult to believe that a disaster had happened.”

  • Wrong conversation: In the case of the Indiana State Fair incident, people were talking about rain and postponing the event, when they should have been talking about the wind and lightning risks and evacuating the fair grounds, Blatt says.
  • Commitment to existing plans/routines: At the Great White show, Blatt writes, “The band didn’t see the fire because it was behind them. The audience did see it, but, according to the survivors, many thought that this was part of the show. As analyzed in the book, Killer Show, people didn’t budge because they were committed. They had paid to see the band. They had inched their way to a good spot near the stage. They did not want to go back on those commitments. So they kept watching despite early signs of danger.”

On the other hand, the security guards were committed to the rule of not letting people through the band door near the stage, which ended up preventing people from escaping.


  • Pay less attention to things that back up a hunch and more attention to things that go against a hunch.
  • Have an open mind.
  • Don’t be too committed to your plans.


For the original piece, click here: http://www.forbes.com/sites/ruthblatt/2014/12/28/what-leaders-can-learn-from-rock-rolls-biggest-disasters/