Astroworld tragedy results in new Houston-Harris County event management agreement

A task force hopes new rules improve communication so the city, county and venue know what their responsibilities are for large events.

FILE: Attendees are shown at NRG Park during the first day of the Astroworld festival in 2021.

Houston and Harris County officials announced an updated event management agreement that will be implemented at large NRG Park events in the wake of the deadly Astroworld tragedy last year.

The new protocols are the work of the city and county’s Task Force on Special Events, which was created in February as a way to improve communication, protocols and permitting requirements after ten people were killed during a crowd crush at the Astroworld music festival on November 5, 2021.

The city nor the county discussed the events of the Astroworld incident due to ongoing investigations. The new rules are for events with more than 6,000 people, which are often held at venues located in NRG Park.

"NRG Park is a unique event venue for special events," said Mayor Sylvester Turner. "Every year, hundreds of events with tens of thousands of people are held without incident largely due to the professional and collaborative nature of the partnerships in place."

The city and county are preparing to host major events, like the NCAA Men's Final Four in April 2023 and the FIFA World Cup in 2026.

The task force that consists of 10 industry leaders from within the city and county worked for months to provide recommendations that could possibly improve the current interlocal agreement, which was last amended in 2018.

The new agreement outlines key specifics: each party’s responsibilities during an event, safety and medical plans that have to be reviewed and approved by public safety and public health officials, changes to permit requirements that gives the city and county more control over approving and denying promoter applications.

The major issue the task force wanted to strengthen was the communication for when events are held so that each contributing party knows what their responsibilities are. That was an issue at Astroworld, as responsibilities were not clearly outlined in the 2018 Interlocal agreement.

"NRG is a county facility, but it’s located in the city of Houston and so when you are planning an event, people need to know who’s responsible for what and that needs to be clearly delineated and understood," said Turner.

NRG Stadium-Astrodome
Lucio Vasquez / Houston Public Media

Harris County Commissioner Adrian Garcia said putting forth language that spells out everyone’s jobs will prevent things from falling through the cracks. NRG Park is the pilot for the new interlocal agreement now, but Garcia said he hopes this can be implemented for all future events.

"While NRG Park is a necessary first step, I expect this agreement to set an example for how the city and the county can collaborate on major events moving forward."

The new agreement also requires a unified command center on site, which means medical and safety personnel such as law enforcement and first responders will have to be physically located on site or have access to a radio so all medical and safety parties can communicate immediately if an incident occurs. City and county officials will now have access to an internal shared calendar of events to help plan ahead for future events, and an event safety planning checklist will be hyperlinked to applicant applications to ensure they have met the requirements before submitting their application.

Steve Adelman, Vice President for the Event Safety Alliance, an organization that focuses on safety and security procedures for live events, helped draft the new agreement. He said the new interlocal agreement is just expanding on the 2018 agreement with a more clearer outline of what's expected.

"So the 2018 version of the interlocal agreement, painted in very broad strokes," he said. "What we’ve done is, frankly, use a much finer brush."

Festival goers are seen rushing into the VIP area during day one of the Astroworld Music Festival at NRG Park on Friday, Nov. 5, 2021, in Houston.
Amy Harris/Invision/AP
Festival goers are seen rushing into the VIP area during day one of the Astroworld Music Festival at NRG Park on Friday, Nov. 5, 2021, in Houston.

Paul Wertheimer, crowd safety expert with Crowd Management Strategies, a crowd safety consulting service based in Los Angeles, California, said he doesn't think the new agreement will provide the safety that is needed to control big crowds.

"This is a clumsy approach to some critical issues that came out of the Astroworld 2021 crowd calamity," he said. "I think the agreement fails to prevent the possibility of future crowd disorders at the county and city events."

Wertheimer said he felt more effort could've been put into the agreement due to how long it took to even put an agreement together after the tragedy.

"This is basically a 2.5 page agreement that's taken arguably 12 months to produce," he said. "A reasonable city effort from my experience from having worked in the municipal government for 10 years in Chicago and Cincinnati, an agreement like this would've taken one day to a week to produce."

Harris County Commissioners unanimously voted on Tuesday to approve the new Interlocal agreement. The city did not have to make a vote due to the city already having a pre existing agreement in place.

The Houston City Council could vote on Wednesday on whether to change the city's special events ordinance to require permits for outdoor music events held on private property with 500 or more people in attendance.