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Tips for Staying Safe at Large Events

Attending a large cultural or social event abroad can be an incredibly immersive and invigorating experience. And as with any large event at home or abroad, your safety is the first priority. Levels of security and the experience of security personnel and planning may vary greatly from country to country. Elizabeth Esparza, senior program manager for International Safety & Security, shares lessons learned from her time abroad and emphasizes what to look out for at large events, whether they're planned or spontaneous.

How to Assess Event Security

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Events with proactive safety measures are much more secure than those without them. Consider the following factors, and always, always trust your gut instincts.

Presence and location of security professionals

First, make sure security personnel are present, including police or event security and medical responders.

Second, check to see whether the security staff are located only along the perimeter or if they're stationed throughout the crowd. If they're limited to the perimeter, there's no way for them to quickly see or respond to activity within the crowd. You'll also want to look out for delineated travel lanes for security personnel and emergency vehicles to maneuver through the crowd.

Access control measures and enforcement of security rules

Many large events limit attendance to help ensure that participation does not exceed what is safe and manageable for the venue and the law enforcement to handle. Ticketing or cutting off admission also allows for evacuation in case of an emergency. The annual Samba Parade during Carnival in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil and London's New Year's Eve countdown and fireworks viewing are just two examples.

Additional security measures include security screenings and bag checks. For example, on Earth Day 2015, No Doubt performed on the National Mall in Washington D.C. Entrance to the event required a security screening, which greatly improved the safety of all in attendance. Some events and venues also restrict the types of bags and items that you're allowed to bring in with you and limit or restrict the consumption of alcohol. While I may find the NFL's ban of purses inconvenient, I understand that they're trying to ensure my safety and the safety of my fellow fans.

Your comfort with the energy or vibe

An event doesn't have to be organized and have security policies implemented for it to be a safe, fun, and memorable experience. While many larger cities have the resources to provide adequate security for large celebrations or parties, smaller cities and towns may not. The more you travel and get to know a city, the more you'll be able to develop your instinct.

Spontaneous Celebrations

While organized events are often the safer choice, organic and spontaneous events are not necessarily unsafe. For example, when I was living in Madrid, I was riding a public bus when it came to a sudden stop. The driver turned around and asked everyone to get off the bus. The streets were so packed that it was unsafe for the bus to continue. Real Madrid had just beaten Barcelona, and the streets were filled with jubilant football fans. There were hugs, laughter, and tears. It was an amazing and incredibly memorable experience.

While I did celebrate, I wasn't sufficiently invested to jump into the fountain like so many others were doing. Despite my lack of swimming, I was thrilled to be a part of Madrid's very short-lived celebration. The police soon arrived and dispersed the crowd, ordering people back into the bars and homes. It was fun while it lasted, and I'm grateful for having been there to experience it.

Of course, had the police responded aggressively or if the celebration took a violent turn, I would have headed home immediately.

Protests

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Protests pose a different risk than celebrations. Some protests are well-organized and obtain all necessary permissions and permits. Others arise quickly with little-to-no advance warning and may turn violent at a moment's notice. Large groups of angry people can be extremely dangerous and unpredictable. It's also exceptionally difficult for the police to react to a protest. In many countries, the police lack the adequate training and equipment to safely control protests or angry mobs. They may use aggressive tactics to disperse the protestors or make arrests indiscriminately.

If you ever find yourself in the vicinity of a demonstration or protest, leave the area. In some countries, it may be illegal for foreigners to participate in a protest. The Mexican constitution, for example, prohibits political activities by foreigners, and potential consequences include detention, imprisonment, and deportation.

Lastly, never take pictures of a protest or riot. What may seem like an innocent act may be perceived as subversive by local authorities. Even relatively liberal countries consider photography a serious security matter.

Have Fun and Be Safe

Throughout your travels, you may find yourself in the midst of large public gatherings. Whether it's the Olympics, Oktoberfest, Chinese New Year, or any other celebration around the world, remember to do your research, have fun, and always be aware of your surroundings.

If you ever find yourself in a situation where your safety is compromised or you need medical support, seek help from the security or medical personnel at the event. If they can't help you (or if they're not accessible or not present), you can always contact Harvard Travel Assist at +1-617-998-0000 or travelassist@harvard.edu.

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