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Controlling Crowds During City Events

Special events like festivals, parades and outdoor concerts can present a bit of a balancing act for local officials.

The focus is on having fun and drawing large crowds of residents and visitors to the city, offering a chance to show off what makes a municipality special. At the same time, the city's top priority is ensuring the safety of everyone, which can be a little tricky when bringing together large numbers of people at the same time.

Columbia's Famously Hot New Year celebration
Famously Hot New Year has brought thousands to Columbia's Main Street
each New Year's Eve since 2011. Photo: Tim Huebel.

The key to pulling it off? Plan early, make sure the right players are involved and don't be afraid to make adjustments if needed.

"We do our best to make it as safe as possible where everybody can have a good time," said Columbia Police Capt. E.M. Marsh, who oversees special operations for the department, including the police department's role in the Famously Hot New Year celebration. "And if we do it seamlessly, most people don't notice what goes into it."

What "goes into it" is crowd-control planning that includes the thousands of people that fill the capital city's streets for the December 31 celebration, the families who turn out for summer movie nights in the Greer City Park Amphitheater or the residents and tourists who party at the Sea and Sand Festival in Folly Beach. It can mean screening festivalgoers, setting up hard barriers around the event area, monitoring alcohol sales and making sure plenty of staff is on hand. And it involves a cross-section of city departments, particularly police, fire and EMS.

In Columbia, where tens of thousands show up to ring in the new year with live music, street dancing and the state's largest New Year's Eve fireworks display, planning begins at least six months out.

"Obviously our main goal is to create a safe environment for all attendees. We start pretty early in planning. And then we have meetings scheduled with the police department, fire, EMS and all emergency services closer to the event. We're all in the same room to review the footprint and review the event timeline," said Linda Toro, the Famously Hot New Year project manager.

Columbia's Famously Hot New Year celebration
Columbia's Famously Hot New Year, which culminates with fireworks behind the State House, involves planning with police, fire and EMS services ahead of the event. Photo: Jeff Blake.

Hamilton Grant, the co-chair of Famously Hot New Year, said monthly meetings are key to pulling off the party each year.

"That's why these monthly advisory meetings are so crucial; it brings all those heads together so we're all on the same page. We can all ask questions so everybody knows what to expect the day before and the night of," Grant said. "There are a lot of balls in the air, but everything is amazingly organized."

Planning and organization helps the city festival to be open and inviting, but also secure.

"In years gone by we've just had gates up around the streets, but if you notice here lately we provide exterior barriers [to protect against] any type of vehicle attacks that could come up. We pay attention to any nationwide threats prior to the event, and we run that through [the State Law Enforcement Division]," Marsh said.

Marsh said Columbia police work to make sure they don't trade security for convenience. For example, this year the city imposed a clear bag policy for entry into the event, something that has been done for a few years at other large events in Columbia.

Along with catering to local residents, the City of Folly Beach has the responsibility of a large number of tourists in the mix for events such as the city-sponsored Christmas parade and Easter promenade. There are also large events put on by the business association in cooperation with the city, such as Taste of Folly and the Sea and Sand Festival.

Folly Beach Sea and Sand Festival
The Folly Beach Sea & Sand Festival will celebrate its 30th year in 2020.
Photo: City of Folly Beach.

Some of the events "draw upwards of 10,000 people. We have a lot of plates spinning on all of those," said Spencer Wetmore, Folly Beach's city administrator.

All of the events follow the same planning format, she said, with a planning committee that includes the city administrator, community coordinator, police and fire chiefs, and public works and facilities heads all working together. Over time, a valuable routine has developed, Wetmore said.

"It's going to take every department to pull together everything from the barricades to the port-a-potties. So six months out we get in a room together," she said.

Fire trucks block the roads that are closed to vehicle traffic, serving as both a security measure and practical easy barricade.

Lt. Matthew Hlavac, left, and Dept. Chief Rocky Burke provide support for the Folly Beach Christmas Parade.
Lt. Matthew Hlavac, left, and Dept. Chief Rocky Burke provide support for the Folly Beach Christmas Parade. Photo: Bonnes Eyes Photography.

"In this day and age we have to take terrorism threats seriously. These are hard-barricaded events with entry gates. You can't just stream in anymore," Wetmore said. "And we try to be as careful as we can be about alcohol consumption."

She said the idea of a hard barricade was not popular at first, and was an adjustment for festivalgoers accustomed to the easygoing, funky atmosphere of the beach town.

"But from a security perspective, it enabled us to keep the event secure, be able to check IDs and have wristbands. By charging a small fee, it lets the business association bring in enough security," Wetmore said. "It was an adjustment from an open concept, but as we grew, we needed these entrance gates and ID checks."

While crowd control is an obvious necessity at large public events, smaller gatherings such as town movie nights in the park also need attention and monitoring.

For example, the City of Greer hosts eight movie nights on Thursdays from June to August, drawing about 800 people each week to the Greer City Park Amphitheater. The events start at 5 p.m., and feature inflatables, crafts, music, dancing and a raffle. Food and drinks from local food vendors are available to purchase throughout the night.

Moonlight Movies series in the Greer City Park Amphitheater
The Moonlight Movies series in the Greer City Park Amphitheater include
preshow events like crafts and dances. Photo: City of Greer.

"We request four [police] officers to be onsite during the movie. We do place our officers at the entrance areas to the amphitheater to help deter bad behavior," said Robbie Davis, the city's events supervisor. "We have a park rule that states children under the age of 16 are to be accompanied by a parent or guardian. The last few years, we have noticed that parents are dropping off children under the age of 16. Our officers are located in these areas to help deter this."

Leaders from cities large and small stress the importance of evaluating what worked and what didn't and using that information to make changes in future festivals and events. In Columbia, Hamilton Grant described improvements made for Famously Hot New Year.

"A big part of that is coming back after the new year in our February meeting to see what things went right and what we can improve on," he said. "Over the years, we've done things like relocate the stage to create a safer environment for everybody. We've also made a clearing lane in front of the stage. People will be on the right side and the left side in front of the stage, but you'll have a lane that makes it safe for EMS and law enforcement to get through in case there's an emergency."

And, for events large and small, organizers say it makes sense to take advantage of the chance to bring people together.

Greer’s Moonlight Movies run from June to August.
Greer's Moonlight Movies run from June to August. Photo: City of Greer.

"Play to your strengths. In a time when we see rhetoric that's so divisive, let's focus on what we agree on," Grant said. "The more our municipalities hold events that bring people together, to where they don't have to focus on what's different, it gives us an opportunity to engage in dialogue. The more you focus on those things, the more you see how much you have in common. It gives people the opportunity to meet their neighbors. You'd be surprised at how many people who would go out of town on New Year's in the past, now stay in town because of this event."