Security and safety the ultimate goal
Behind the scenes at major sporting events, assistance companies are working tirelessly to mitigate medical and security risks, ensuring a seamless experience. Experts share with Lauren Haigh their careful planning procedures, potential obstacles and important takeaways
Major sports events such as the Olympic Games and the World Cup attract a huge volume of attendees, bringing with them a raft of logistical, cultural and medical challenges. Crucial work by medical and assistance providers ensures that risk mitigation and other preparations are in place, so that any difficulties can be quickly overcome or avoided entirely. “Ultimately, the spectator experience denotes whether an event was a success or failure, but careful planning is the best way to manage risk,” Frank Harrison, Regional Security Director Americas, World Travel Protection, told ITIJ. “The spectators, in most cases, will never know of the efforts taken to entertain them and keep their experience safe.”
The FIFA World Cup in Qatar attracted around 1.5 million international attendees, which is over 52 per cent of the country’s population, necessitating significant preparations, particularly in the context of Covid-19. “It was the first time that one of the world’s largest sports tournaments was hosted in Qatar and the entire Middle East,” said Sebastien Bedu, General Manager for the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) region at International SOS. “It took place across eight close proximity-built venues, offering visitors an unprecedented opportunity to attend more than one match a day. And while Qatar is a country with low security and medical risk ratings, organisations still had to plan for and mitigate associated risks to their international attendees and local workforce, guaranteeing normal operation and business continuity,” he added.
The pandemic, of course, led to the postponement and cancellation of swathes of sporting events. Jonathan Brown, Risk Manager, Charles Taylor Assistance, is interested to see how things proceed in this new normal: “Will a greater awareness of the risk of cramming large numbers of people into confined spaces help to reduce other risks? The most likely impact on medical assistance providers will probably continue to be the need to check for Covid-19 in patients requiring evacuation or repatriation,” he said. “This problem isn’t unique to the hosting of large sporting events, and we have a lot of experience at dealing with these issues. But it’s something we have to take into account, simply due to the large numbers of people involved.”
The risk planning process for any major event is continuous. It starts before an event, only concluding after it’s finished
Ahead of the game
Risk planning constitutes a vital part of preparations and is ongoing throughout the event in question. It is not only crucial to its success, but can be a matter of life or death. “It’s important to note that the risk planning process for any major event is continuous. It starts before an event, only concluding after it’s finished – with findings reviewed and actioned where necessary,” Harrison underlined. “Pre-planning and coordination are critical to success. Risk assessments need to identify any potential issues, including worst-case scenarios, and provide specific training to ensure all response capabilities are aligned and work cross-functionally together.” Harrison provided an insight into what this entails, from advance preparation, to establishing committees and undertaking reviews: “It usually commences no less than 10 months before ʻshow dayʼ. For larger events, planning starts as soon as it is awarded. Committees are formed, and an all-hazards, all-stakeholders approach is taken to risk assessment. A review of all functions is undertaken, from emergency management to operations to marketing. Issues and opportunities are highlighted and added to action lists, with areas of success or effectiveness catalogued and marked as planning ready,” he explained. “Organisations conduct a tabletop exercise to allow management the opportunity to work together and understand resource limitations or unforeseen needs. Some run a worst-case scenario drill with all available resources, ensuring teams are prepared and understand interoperability. In the event of an emergency, there needs to be a singular location these designated persons can go to, in order to manage an unexpected or escalating incident,” Harrison added.
Taking a holistic view
Matthew Judge, International VP, Travel Risk Management, Everbridge, also confirmed that advance planning and preparation are vital and will differ, depending on certain factors. “These include the relationship that our clients, or others under our care remit, may have with the event in question – are they significant sponsors, are they participating in the event directly, are they there in a hospitality capacity? The scale and location will also determine courses of action. As a provider of security and medical assistance services, we always take a holistic view of any event. But whatever the situation, it always starts with a comprehensive risk and threat assessment.” Judge said surrounding environs are key. “As part of that initial risk and threat assessment, we’d also look at crime statistics and the general threat landscape of the area in question, as well as social engineering vulnerabilities and local police and fire service capabilities,” he stated. “On the medical side, we’d consider the health situation in the area to ascertain whether those attending would be advised to take additional precautions, and identify and evaluate all facilities, to assess their ability to deal with a wide range of concerns – from individual cases to major outbreaks or critical care needs,” Judge added. Other important preparations involve looking at transport infrastructure and direct liaison with event organisers, their contracted security, and emergency responders to set up communication channels.
Brown said that reviewing the capabilities and capacity of medical facilities is crucial, for treating not only ‘typical’ traveller accidents such as food poisoning and sunstroke, but also those associated with major sporting events. “These could include crushing injuries from badly managed crowds, or simply an increased number of incidents resulting from huge numbers of travellers converging on one place,” Brown said. “This review has to take into account any temporary procedures by local authorities, such as the designating of particular facilities for handling incidents at venues.” Something to be mindful of is that designated providers may not be the same ones that insurers and/or travellers would typically choose. “For example, visitors to some countries generally prefer and expect to access any necessary treatment at private clinics, especially for outpatient care,” Brown continued. “The sheer volume of people makes this impractical, and medical assistance companies find themselves dealing with providers they’re not used to.”
Local communication is also imperative for Natalya Butakova, CEO, AP Companies: “When we prepare for large sporting events, we identify the nearest medical providers, then agree that we will need priority attention for our customers during a certain period, with special prices for certain procedures. We select medical providers based on location and range of services, ensuring that we can meet any type of medical emergency. We cover several scenarios during the preparation stage – anything from cut fingers, to major emergencies in the case of mass fire or terrorist attack, or anything else leading to multiple victims,” Butakova explained.
Establishing a network
Speaking about the 2022 FIFA World Cup in Qatar, Dr Gulsen Gul, MENA Regional Manager, Marm Assistance, said the main focus was establishing a network and keeping it up to date, underlining the importance of familiarities with the regulations of the healthcare system: “Although Qatar is one of the most frequently visited countries in that peninsula, and almost all private hospitals have international patient departments, the current international patient volume is not as huge as other touristic countries,” Dr Gul stated. “Being a multicultural nation, it is very easy to communicate in English with each service provider, but it is essential to appreciate the local know-how when it comes to contracted cooperation. Marm contacted every medical facility, especially around the stadiums, to ensure they could accommodate a possible need during the tournament. Qatar is a small country in terms of surface area, which is why football fans were expected to travel to other surrounding countries, such as the UAE and Bahrain. Our preparations extended beyond Doha,” he said.
Another concern is that large-scale events can be prime targets for criminal activity. “Belligerents endeavour to achieve maximum attention with a small act of aggression, such as a protest, or a more villainous action like a weapons attack or other type of sabotage,” Harrison said. “Protests are usually intended to disrupt; however, in many cases, risk planning authorities will have reasonable warning and can plan accordingly. If a protest occurs, nearby authorities should be able to contain it and continue as planned, with minimal disruption.”
Essential for Harrison is understanding the venue, topography, and how users are able to move into and out of it. “Large-scale events with multinational participants – specifically from countries where there are known crises or civil disorder – can be particularly tricky,” he explained. “These have the potential to attract disruptors, and even terrorists, with the goal of maximum exposure. Often these attacks achieve only a minor impact, but the reputational damage is far-reaching. Pre-planning is paramount.”
Monitoring for warning signs
Infrastructure concerns are also inescapable, said Butakova. “Something that's common countries in preparation for sporting events is that a lot of infrastructure – including hospitals and clinics – is being built, remodelled or expanded right before it takes place,” she noted. “This limits AP’s ability to do on-site visits and evaluate the capabilities of these newly refurbished providers, who tend to get very busy with full-size inspections and evaluations. Hence, it’s important to plan those carefully and well in advance to reserve the time needed for thorough examinations.”
We need to be aware of local cultures and customs, appreciating how visitors are impacted
Brown explained that until the pandemic, the two main challenges were numbers and understanding event-specific arrangements. “Major sporting events can see whole sections of cities closed to traffic, or one-way systems put in place which can impact those in need of medical support, but who don't require an ambulance. Where the authorities have designated specific medical providers for dealing with visitors, this can mean establishing new relationships with medical providers,” he continued. “Thankfully, major mass-casualty incidents are rare, and organisers take responsibilities very seriously, but there is always the possibility of panicking crowds, or even a terrorist incident. We need to work closely with security partners, who are constantly monitoring social media and other sources for early warnings of any disruption.”
Judge also emphasised the importance of respect: “We need to be aware of local cultures and customs, appreciating how visitors are impacted. It’s important to have good local knowledge, liaising and coordinating efforts with local resources. Clear lines of communication and clarity around roles and responsibilities is vital,” he highlighted.
Reflecting on lessons learned
Overcoming such challenges undoubtedly helps moving forward. “My biggest takeaway is that a coordinated approach to planning and debriefing is critical to the success of any significant public gathering, show or sporting event,” said Harrison. “Diversity, equity and inclusion have to be front and centre. Events need to be culturally far-reaching, affording privacy and respect, plus the provisioning of meals and dietary needs, and accommodation for attendees with regards to their beliefs.” He added: “It can also include the segregation of certain groups or providing a safe environment for multicultural interactions.”
Butakova agreed that the undisputed need for extensive preparation is the major lesson learned: “To offer our clients a smooth service and efficient support, we should prepare well in advance. When the homework is done, we are sure to successfully manage any kind of medical need.”
Bedu stressed the importance of contingency and emergency plans across stakeholder networks. “Organisations sending international attendees, with a local workforce, need to ensure continuity with medical and security emergency plans in place,” he said. “These must be supported by professionals on the ground, with a robust network of local and international medical, logistics and security providers. To keep plans agile and situational, it is vital to ensure access to medical and security advisors and specialists, who monitor in-country developments and advise on necessary steps, changes and adjustments.”
A team approach supports the planning, implementation and communication channels at a major sporting event, prioritising the safety of participants and spectators. Expecting the unexpected and being flexible are important, including being prepared to establish relationships with providers and other stakeholders. Best practices are learned before, during and after events, while debriefing ensures these are implemented moving forward. “When large groups of people come together, there are always challenges. Crowds can be unpredictable, so even with the best-laid plans, it’s vital that we, as assistance providers, have considered every possible eventuality,” Judge concluded.