Penn Station, Coney Island panics show need for better preparation

Chaos erupted Friday night at Penn Station after false reports of an active shooter sent throngs of people running for the exits. Sixteen people were hurt in the panic, which was actually triggered by police Tasering an unruly passenger.

Then Sunday night in Coney Island, an apparent dispute involving glass bottles was also mistaken for the sound of gunshots and had people running for safety.

Both incidents recalled the pandemonium at JFK Airport in August 2016 when the sound of people cheering on Olympian Usain Bolt was mistaken for gunfire and led to a panicked evacuation of the airport terminal.

"It's systematic of an ongoing problem," said Paul Wertheimer, the founder of Crowd Management Services and a leading expert on the topic. He said the incident at Penn Station shows that preparedness at so-called soft targets, like train stations, is lacking. He said places like transit hubs should have an evacuation plan in place and make sure its customers are aware.

"You have to educate your public," Wertheimer said. "People need to know what to do. They need to pre-visualize situations and know what they're options are, feel empowered."

Over the weekend, Gov. Andrew Cuomo said systematic improvements are needed.

"The first responders have to be trained not to panic, and they have to be trained how to now handle a public that is very antsy," Cuomo said.

A spokesperson for the governor's office pointed to recommendations issued after the JFK incident that called for civilian employees to work with first responders on evacuation plans and crowd management.

Manny Gomez, a former NYPD sergeant and president of MG Security Services, said first responders should be trained to work in conjunction with employees of Penn Station and the various transportation providers that operate there.

"They should run drills to train their personnel, like fire drills, to avoid such a problem in the future," Gomez said.

What do you do if you're caught in a situation where crowds of people panic and run?

Gomez advised: "Be vigilant but be calm. If you panic, you will hurt yourself or others."

Wertheimer said he encourages people who commute at mass transit hubs to think out a plan in advance.

"Be prepared with options, pre-visualize when you go to your work every day from Penn Station or anywhere on the street, 'What would I do if that day does come?'" he said. "At least you've thought about it and it gives you an advantage."