Emergency Planning for Race Directors

When Hurricane Sandy devastated the East Coast in 2012, one of my first thoughts after checking on my New Jersey family and friends was, “what is the New York Marathon going to do?”  Seeing photos of the debris in the streets made it difficult to imagine anyone running a marathon in those conditions. Ultimately, however, the marathon would “go on as normal.”  

Hurricane Sandy and other emergency situations dramatically highlight the importance of thorough contingency and emergency planning for every event.  What will you do in the case of dangerous weather, unannounced construction, or occupy movements?

NYC lower east side
New York City’s flooded Lower East Side following Hurricane Sandy – October 30, 2012

Identify Potential Emergencies Could Would Impact Your Race

Although thinking about  altering or cancelling the event you’ve put so much hard work into is difficult, former National Marathon race director Keith Dowling believes it’s necessary to come up with “the list of conditions that would shut down” your event.

Before each race Keith’s team would hold a “what if” meeting where they ran through various scenarios.  They developed a plan for what they would do with event participants if they needed to shut down after the race had already started.

Create a Specific Plan for Each Emergency

Keith’s crew segmented certain weather related conditions so they had a plan for each just in case: rain, lightning, black ice, deep snow, heat advisory, and cold advisory.  They also had a divergence plan that they almost needed to use one year when, being in Washington DC, the Secretary of State drove through the course with a motorcade after the race had started!

Make It Easy to Follow Your Emergency Plan

Vision Event Management‘s Chad Antcliff told me that “fortunately, or unfortunately, we’ve had plenty of experience dealing with some of the likely scenarios and are able to have a baseline for planning and tweak our plans as we encounter new obstacles.”

Chad cited an example of a time when his planning paid off.  In September 2011, at the Brewers Mini-Marathon, there was “a thunderstorm with lightning 30 minutes before the start within 30 miles of the race site.  We had to enact our evacuation plan to get everyone safely out of the conditions.  Our staff utilized our megaphones, PA system and social media to alert participants about the delay and directed them where to seek shelter.”

Chad’s team was trained to respond to emergencies and knew where to find the equipment they needed to evacuate runners and staff safely. Make sure your entire team–including volunteers–understands your emergency plan and knows where important supplies will be kept.

Safely Continue the Race When Possible

Luckily for Chad, his story doesn’t end there. Ultimately, they were able to continue the race: “After we had 15 minutes with no lightning strikes within 15 miles of the race site and got the go ahead from public safety personnel, we directed participants back to the start line.  The race started at 7:25, 25 minutes past our scheduled time, but ended up going off without a hitch.”

Your emergency plan should include a way to assess the risk after an emergency situation to determine if the race can continue. Communicate frequently with participants to update them on the status and let them know when it’s safe to resume the race.

Emergency Planning for Races

“Contingency planning messes with your head,” said Keith, “but you never want to be caught not knowing what to do in an emergency.”  Hopefully you will never need to execute an emergency plan, but you’ll be glad it’s there if you do.

How do you develop contingency plans for your event?  What have you done when something unexpected happened?

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