'Tis the Season for Trampling: How to Stay Safe in Holiday Shopping Crowds

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The 2014 holiday shopping season is upon us! Hooray? With media and advertisers bombarding us with "Black Friday" and "Small Business Saturday" and recent headlines about stores being fined for NOT being open on Thanksgiving Day, I think it's safe to say that American hype about holiday shopping is out of control.

Sadly, hype and spending are not the only things that can be out of control about holiday shopping. A quick review of holiday shopping-related incidents of Christmas past (am I harkening Ebenezer Scrooge yet?) shows that danger and violence related to crowds have become an expected, if not accepted, part of the holiday shopping experience.

In 2011, a man named Walter Vance suffered a heart attack at a Target store in West Virginia, and holiday shoppers just stepped over him and kept shopping. He later died at the hospital.

This 2013 piece about Black Friday violence, specifically, catalogues a number of incidents from around the country, including stabbings, shootings, slashings, shoplifting, and more.

And in 2008, a Walmart employee was crushed to death by crowds clamoring to get holiday deals.

If recent history is to be any sort of indicator, we can probably expect similar reports of unruly crowds and violence this year. So what can you do to protect yourself and your family in a holiday shopping crowd?

This is where I bring in Dr. Steve Crimando, an expert in crisis management and disaster response. I've had the opportunity to hear him speak twice in the last year, and both times I've come away with practical information that can be put to use immediately. Steve studies the psychology underlying group, crowd and mob behavior, and he has extensive practical experience. For example, he is the man behind the scenes keeping people safe at events like SuperBowl XLVIII at the MetLife Stadium and many more.

According to Steve, "Not all crowds are violent, but all crowds are dangerous." When crowds turn into mobs there are various physical and psychological factors contributing to the shift. Without going into too much detail, let's just say that the context of holiday shopping sales checks off a lot of the requisite boxes. The sheer physics of an acquisition-motivated crowd can quickly become dire, and is the number one danger of being in a crowd. In deaths resulting from crowd-related injuries, most people die before hitting the ground.

People die standing up in crowds... from asphyxiation, and it's called "crowd crush." The compound force of five people can create vertical pressure of 766 pounds, which is enough to asphyxiate a person standing up. Add body heat, psychological and possible health factors, and it's a recipe for disaster.

Here are Dr. Crimando's tips that anybody can use when in a crowd:

1) Go in prepared -- carry a mobile phone, identification, and a small flashlight.
2) Wear tie shoes with a low heel or no heel.
3) Avoid "dangerous" clothing that can get easily caught or yanked.
4) Don't respond to taunts.
5) Stay on the periphery of the crowd, if possible.
6) Don't stand near temporary structures.
7) Don't stand against solid/immovable structures.
8) If you get caught up in a crowd, move diagonally.
9) If you drop something, let it go. Don't bend down unnecessarily.
10) If you go down, get up as quickly as possible, any way you can.
11) If you go down and can't get back up, keep moving, crawling if you have to.
12) If you go down, and can't move, duck and cover while trying to create an air pocket.
13) Most importantly, pay attention to your surroundings, and stay calm.

And on that note... happy shopping!

(Author's Note: For full disclosure, Dr. Crimando and I are both members of the Association of Threat Assessment Professionals. I am on the board of the Northeast Chapter.)