How Philly handles emergencies at major events, and how attendees can get live updates

The city made big strides after Pope Francis came to visit in 2015.

Crowds fill the Ben Franklin Parkway for Made in America each Labor Day weekend

Crowds fill the Ben Franklin Parkway for Made in America each Labor Day weekend

Photo A. Ricketts / VISIT PHIL
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Philly hosts upwards of 1,400 special events a year, from parades to marches to farmers markets and music festivals. City announcements for these events almost always include a note that officials are “coordinating with local, state and federal public safety authorities to utilize a network of prevention and response services.”

With the Made in America festival on tap this Labor Day weekend, what does that actually mean?


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The Office of Emergency Management is the central organizer. In general, OEM coordinates emergency response for everything from natural disasters to SEPTA strikes. For special events, its main job is to secure the location and be on hand for medical response.

But duties can extend far beyond those baseline goals, as the events at Philly’s Fourth of July fireworks show. At the finale of Welcome America festival on the Ben Franklin Parkway, two officers on the security detail were hit by bullets. They were later determined to have likely been fired in celebration far away from the area, but at the time, the scene was evacuated over fears of an active shooter.

Made in America regularly brings between 50,000 and 60,000 people to the Parkway. As part of the safety effort, everyone who enters the event will be searched, organizers say, and only small, clear bags are allowed.

In advance of this year’s fest, we looked at what else goes into the planning of keeping attendees safe, and how you can stay aware in case of a sketchy scenario.

The Public Safety Plan: A guide for the day

For large events like Made in America, OEM spends a ton of effort crafting what it calls an interagency “Public Safety Plan” that contains all the pertinent info.

“The document is a culmination of months of pre-planning that includes meetings, tabletop exercises, email coordination, community outreach, and on-site walkthroughs,” Jeffery Kolakowski, OEM’s public information program manager, told Billy Penn. The plan provides clarity on each agency’s responsibilities, and potential actions for if an incident of concern takes place.

While coordination for large events obviously dates back a long way, interagency planning in Philly recently took a leap forward. When the World Meeting of Families and Pope Francis came to the city in 2015, Kolakowski said, it helped spark increased communication for the slew of big events that followed.

“Plans were developed for large events like the 2016 Democratic National Convention, National Football League Draft, and Eagles Super Bowl parade,” Kolakowski said. “This provided opportunities for not only improvement on the process, but allowed relationships among agencies to grow.”

On-scene operations for large events are centered around a unified command post, where event organizers and public safety representatives gather real-time information, and can share updates with attendees and event personnel. The OEM’s Regional Integration Center includes 24/7 monitoring in a watch center that receives camera feeds and radio alerts, utilizes live weather maps, and more.

One instance of interagency situational awareness, per Kolakowski, is the OEM’s “longstanding” relationship with the National Weather Service’s outpost in Mount Holly, N.J.

“During the days leading up to, and on event days, our Regional Integration Center will receive forecasts specific to the location and any possible weather hazards that may have an impact,” he said. That info is shared with the planning group to incorporate into the overarching Public Safety Plan.

The law enforcement nexus

Law enforcement officers also help assess the safety needs for events, especially larger ones.

The Philadelphia Police Department has a five-person team of emergency management liaison officers, who all have on-scene responsibilities, with various other tasks being split among them. Vanessa Lyman, the team’s group leader, joins a pair of Department of Homeland Security employees as representatives of law enforcement in OEM’s planning process.

Depending on the size of the event, PPD officers may be tasked to a security detail alone. For larger events, they’re often paired with state and federal officers. For instance, one of the officers struck by gunfire on the Fourth of July was a member of the Montgomery County Bomb Squad, which often assists PPD for big events.

Police Commissioner Danielle Outlaw shared another aspect of PPD’s plan for MIA 2022 during a Wednesday gun violence response press conference: plainclothes officers.

“To make sure that all event participants, visitors to the city, and residents remain safe, we will also be assigning plainclothes and uniformed personnel in and around the event,” Outlaw said. “The safety of everyone is our top priority and is paramount.”

Resources for attendees

ReadyPhiladelphia, an OEM-supported communications service, sends push notifications via an app, emails, texts, and voicemails for various announcements from a wide swath of city agencies — and it’s particularly handy if you’re heading to a big gathering.

The kind of notifications sent to your account can be filtered to only include emergency alerts and special event alerts, curated to your needs for the duration of the occasion.

You can sign up online, download the app, or text ReadyPhila to 888-777 to register and receive updates.

In 2015, OEM published a Special Events Safety Guide, which includes a handful of tips that are fairly common knowledge, but easy to forget in planning to attend an event or the heat of the moment. Suggestions include:

  • Knowing the locations of exit areas and medical tents
  • Choosing a meeting spot in case your party is separated
  • For events on the Parkway, understanding the Location Marker system

For this weekend’s Made in America Festival, the event organizers have created an app that will keep attendees informed, available on iOS and Android.

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