Brian Dillon says that in the long term, the evacuation of a packed football stadium because of a suspect device – eventually determined to have been left behind after an exercise – could yield fruitful learning for the future
A fake bomb planted – then forgotten – by a security company as part of an exercise at Manchester United’s Old Trafford stadium led to fans being evacuated 20 minutes before kick-off. Army bomb disposal units carried out a controlled explosion on the device, which was described as being “Incredibly realistic” (Magi Horum / Rex)
Good practice, common sense and, in many countries even the law, tell us that exercising contingency plans is a necessary factor in ensuring that crisis management strategies are viable. An effective exercise should have a semblance of realism about it, whether that is a table-top or full scale live play event. Without this there seems little point in going to the time, effort and cost to mount an exercise.
The thing about realism though is that it brings with it a set of attendant risks; principally the chance of overlapping with the real world and unintentionally creating a false alarm.
The discovery of a pseudo improvised explosive device – left over from an exercise at Manchester United's stadium – 20 minutes before kick-off on match day, is a glaring illustration of this point.
For those who had their day ruined there is probably little comfort from the fact that, while treated as a real incident, the bomb scare generated an effective evacuation of the stadium and an efficient response from the authorities.
Nevertheless, I suggest that this incident offers tangible benefits once it has been fully reviewed and debriefed. It is possibly the only large-scale evacuation of a sports stadium since the Stade de France was subject of a terrorist attack in November 2015.
To have this experience available on the eve of the 2016 European Football Championships is valuable. The sensible thing now is to capitalise on it by comparing with the Stade de France evacuation and seeing what parallels, differences or other learning is available.
Contingency exercises using large crowds generally do not take place, certainly not in sports stadia because the logistics of marshalling 75,000 people and managing an exercise on such a scale is beyond the budget of most authorities.
Stadium exercises are often command-based and rely on crowd modelling to provide an indication of anticipated actions and behaviours in any given situation. Thus the link up from command to the operational response of managing a packed stadium is artificially achieved. At best a small crowd can be used and the rest imagined from a notional perspective.
The Manchester United evacuation provides, in the UK, an unprecedented examination of club, emergency services and military working together to enact a contingency plan. They did this under the pressure of believing it to be a real incident with all the associated demands this brought.
Undoubtedly there will be lessons to learn, not least for the original exercise planners. However, those concerned in the operational evacuation may identify recommendations with wide benefits. The experience of this unintended event is undoubtedly of value for every large stadium in the UK. So, although there is an immediate price to pay, history may take a more forgiving view of the original errors that led to this unexpected bounty of operational learning.