Safety Officer John Little on capacities and ground safetyWhen we all come along to Brunton Park for a Saturday afternoon or Tuesday evening match day it’s the thin end of the wedge in terms of preparation, planning and safety considerations which have all been brought together to give us a safe and secure environment within which we can watch our football.
Club Safety Officer John Little sat down with the official website to talk about current capacity levels, how they are set, and the safety considerations to be met for the stadium to be given the green light before a ball can be kicked.
“We’re governed by Cumbria County Council Safety Advisory Group [SAG] who issue the club with the General Safety Certificate which then allows us to hold football matches,” he explained. “SAG is made up of emergency service personnel, county council structural engineers, building control from the city council, and basically all organisations who need to have an input into looking after the safety of the stadium and the people within it.
“We could, in theory, play a game without any crowd, so the annual audit – a look through personnel records, contingency plans, risk assessments, test certificates and incident procedures – makes sure that all of the checks and certificates are up to date and that we have everything in place to run a safe venue.”
“A crucial part of it is that the club has to demonstrate it has safety as one of its core values,” he continued. “You get to that point by having a semi-independent safety officer who, as in my case, is an employee of the club, but who is there to make sure the club complies with all of the current regulations and legislation.
“I use a publication called the Green Guide [fifth edition] to help me with the advice and guidance I give, which is a series of good practices and procedures we, as a football club, are recommended to follow.
“I make sure the required safety and operational tests and checks have been completed and I guide the club on any changes to practices or laws which could affect us. That means I’m a bit of a middle man between the board of directors and the SAG who is there to make sure we are where we’re supposed to be.
“When it comes down to it, and as suggested by the tile, the Safety Officer has to make sure safety comes first in every instance.”
Speaking about official capacity figures, he said: “Once the SAG is happy that we are running things in a safe and efficient manner we’ll be issued with a safety certificate, which tells us what the capacity of the stadium is permitted to be.
“At the moment, and for the last few years, we’ve been running at 100%. That figure is determined by how many people can safely be inside the stadium if all of the seats are available and if all of the terraced areas are open. And of course, it is dependent on all safety tests and certificates being current and complete.
“So, for example, if we chose to make the Pioneer Stand a ‘home fans only’ game it would give us 5,832 seats (the total number available in the East Stand) in that area of the stadium for Carlisle United supporters. Added to the other stands and terraces we would have a capacity of 18,363 in this case – this would include places for 47 disabled supporters.
“With the segregation netting in place in section 4 of the Pioneer Stand, as it is for most games at the moment, it takes that section of seats out of use and reduces the capacity to 18,093 (places for 47 disabled supporters included).
“As we saw for the visit of Everton in January we also have a third option, which is to put the segregation netting in section 5 of the East Stand. This is something we will probably use for bigger games going forward, and it gives us a capacity of 18,287.”
Now a very familiar face around Brunton Park, John revealed that his association with the club stretches all the way back to 1976 when he started to work on the turnstiles for every home game.
“I came to the club as a boy to work as a gate man,” he said. “This was before Hillsborough when they didn’t really have stewards. If control was needed it was provided by about 30 or 40 police being on site.
“That went on for a while, and I then moved into the counting office to help with the counting of the match day takings and I eventually became chief steward. After Hillsborough they brought in the requirement for every club to have a safety officer, to bring the policies and procedures in line with the national requirements.
“Initially I said no when I was asked to do that, so Arthur Hodgkinson took the job on as a board member. That caused an issue when the Football Licencing Authority, now the Sports Ground Safety Authority, told us we couldn’t have a director doing the job.
“The inspector from the FLA recommended that I took it over, so I said I’d do it until they found someone suitable. That carried on for quite a while. Michael Knighton then took over and I worked for him until the day Princess Diana died.
“That was the day of our first game back in League One when Mervyn Day was manager. Michael started to get more involved in the safety side of the club and he wanted to change a few things I wasn’t happy with.”
“I decided at that point it was time for me to hand the job over to someone else,” he continued. “I did the game, because I didn’t want to leave the club high and dry, and I packed up afterwards. It felt strange at the time but I knew I couldn’t carry on in the circumstances.
“When John Courtenay came in he got his managing director Paul Bell to ring me to see if I would come back. I have to say I really wasn’t interested. They did have someone in the position at the time, but he was from Newcastle and they wanted to bring it local again.
“Yet again I said no, but they asked me to think about it over the weekend. I spoke to my wife and told her I’d ring them on the Monday to politely decline. I did that, and Paul asked me to stay on the phone. I waited a few minutes and the next thing John Courtenay was on the line. He had a chat with me about what he felt I could do, but I was still in the frame of mind that I didn’t want to get involved again.
“He then explained that the team was going on a pre-season tour to Ireland and that he wanted to sit down with me, face-to-face, when he got back. I said yes, I’ll do that, and we did ... and within 30 minutes of being in the room with him I’d signed on the dotted line! That was the kind of character he was.”
“I have to say the relationship with him, and with the owners who have followed, has been very good,” he told us. “I’m not here to be difficult or awkward and my number one priority is always the safety of the public.
“Most of the things I’ve insisted on over the years have been agreed. The board leave it for me to get on with and they tend not to interfere. They know SAG are happy with what we do and that’s a big part of why we’re left to deal with any issues which crop up.
“Some Safety Officers have had the difficult situation where there has been a commercial interest in wanting to do something which doesn’t quite fit, and they’ve had to say no. I’ve had very few occasions like that.”
As for his most difficult day in the job so far, he said: “The Leeds play-off game has been the most testing experience. Their fans were a very difficult lot to manage, to say the least, and that was with police on duty in large numbers.
“They were throwing objects into the paddock north throughout the game and they congregated on the bank behind the waterworks after full time. The police got involved with dogs and horses to calm things down, but it was a very difficult night.
“Thankfully situations like that are few and far between. If I haven’t had to do anything other than the normal duties you’d expect to have to do come full time and everyone is safe, then I’m happy. I’m even happier if Carlisle have won.”