Industry Issues

Protecting People on Both Sides of the Bar

Key safety strategies that industry pros can use to help protect staff and patrons in crises involving violence or harassment

blurry patrons and bartenders at a bar
Illustration by Jeff Quinn.

In a learning session at BevCon 2017 in Charleston, South Carolina, industry experts gathered to discuss plans, policies, and training to help protect bar staff and patrons in crisis situations, especially where violence and harassment are involved. The Protecting People on Both Sides of the Bar session was led by Angie Fetherston, CEO of Drink Company in Washington, D.C.; her husband, JP Fetherston, a partner at Drink Company and the head bartender at Columbia Room in D.C.; and Jessica Raven, executive director of Collective Action for Safe Spaces (CASS), also in D.C.

JP Fetherston explained that Drink Company’s “watershed” moment came last winter when they were running their holiday pop-up bar.

“It was around the time of the attack on the Christmas market in Berlin,” he said. “We have these massive lines of people on the sidewalk, sometimes 300 or 400 people at a time. It was a really frightening moment for us because we thought, ‘Wow, something like that could very easily happen to us.’ So that got us thinking about what we could do to train ourselves better, to be smarter and more aware of taking steps to provide a safer atmosphere for our patrons.”

Angie Fetherston added, “The more we thought about it, the more we realized the people at our bars are literally sitting ducks. And the only way we could feel better was by learning more, being more informed, and thinking through the steps of how we could do the greatest amount of good for the greatest number of people should one of these things happen in one of our establishments.”

For her, that meant attending FEMA’s Community Emergency Response Team (CERT) training, a free program that educates volunteers and trains them in basic disaster response skills.

Responding to an Active Shooter

During CERT training, Fetherston learned that in an incident with an active shooter, the safety strategies, in order, are run, hide, or fight. Running, she said, is always the best option in a crisis.

Now when Fetherston walks into a venue, she immediately looks for the exits and makes sure she knows where she would go and what she would do if something were to happen. “It just takes a second to look around and figure out what you could do in an emergency situation,” she said.

If running is not an option, she said, you should find a place to hide. It could be in a closet or an empty room—and, if possible, barricade yourself in with furniture and anything that might stop a shooter from entering the room.

The last resort is to fight. If that’s your only option, there are a number of things you can try. To demonstrate, Fetherston orchestrated a role-playing exercise to show attendees how to attempt to overwhelm and subdue a shooter.

The first step, she explained, is to stay out of the “kill zone,” or outside the area of direct visibility from the door. You may also be able to buy time and overwhelm a shooter by throwing things across the room—or at the shooter—as a distraction. Fetherston advised positioning a few people behind the shooter, if possible, to throw body weight onto the shooting arm and tackle the shooter from behind by pushing in the back of the knees to knock the shooter down.

“You think you’re going to have a superhero moment,” she said. “But in reality, you’re just going to freeze unless you have a programmed response.” She added that just having a plan and knowing what to do in a crisis can help save lives.

And while shooter situations tend to be rare, thankfully, there are other types of crises, such as instances of sexual harassment and assault, that are much more common, and attendees learned that knowing how to respond, intervene, and protect their staff and patrons while creating a safe environment can benefit everyone.

Dealing with Harassment

Raven said her training program at CASS evolved out of a need: She pointed to statistics indicating that one in five women will experience sexual assault in her lifetime, 50 percent of all sexual and physical assaults involve alcohol, and approximately 90 percent of female and 50 percent of male restaurant employees have experienced sexual harassment from customers.

At CASS, Raven and her team help bar and restaurant staff implement strategies to better protect themselves and their patrons. They suggest the following four strategies:

  1. Develop a written policy on harassment. It can be as simple as printing something like “Sexual harassment and hateful language won’t be tolerated here” on signs or on the menu.
  2. Post safety posters and other materials in your bar. This shows staff and patrons that they are supported, and it helps direct them to local resources in the event that they feel unsafe or are attacked. It also demonstrates that the bar is committed to cultivating a safe environment.
  3. Train staff to recognize early warning signs of predatory behavior. In addition, teach the staff how to address that behavior and intervene before a situation escalates.
  4. Maintain diversity on staff. Having more women, people of color, and LGBTQ members on your team will help people from those communities feel safer and more welcome in your venue.

CASS also developed a “3D” strategy for managing inappropriate behavior. The organization recommends using it to intervene directly with the person who is being targeted, the aggressor, or both.

  • Direct. Communicate directly with the target and ask after their well-being, and call out the aggressor for their behavior to let them know they are being watched and to discourage them from continuing the harassment.
  • Distract. Engage the aggressor in conversation—talk about something distracting, such as your beer list or sports. This is a nonconfrontational way to deflect an aggressor from a target, de-escalate the situation, and give the target the opportunity to leave.
  • Delegate. Ask a manager for assistance in defusing potential incidents of harassment, and ask friends of the target or the aggressor to intervene in a potentially dangerous situation.

Raven pointed out that every bartender has tactics and strategies for dealing with challenging situations. “The most important thing,” she said, “is to make sure you’re having regular conversations at every staff meeting and giving staff an opportunity to share the interventions they’re already using.” Making safety a priority—and a regular topic of conversation—can help protect people better on both sides of the bar.

Laura Scholz is a freelance spirits and wellness writer based in Atlanta whose work has appeared in Atlanta Magazine, the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, Eater Atlanta, Southern Kitchen, Tales of the Cocktail.com, Liquor.com, and many other local and national publications.

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