June 28, 2007 — -- Friday, thousands of people are expected to gather outside the nation's Apple stores, AT&T storefronts and shopping malls, waiting patiently for hours to buy an iPhone -- no more than two at a time.
At 6 p.m., after chatting with their neighbors on the snaking lines, customers will quietly, gratefully hand over their credit cards to pay for this year's most-anticipated gadget.
As the iPhone's release date nears, one thing is certain: Images of the new phone and the frenzy surrounding it are everywhere. So what will all that marketing, buzz and pent-up desire produce? If appropriate precautions aren't taken, experts said, a crowd control disaster.
"We hear about the nightmares," said Lou Palumbo, president and director of the Elite Agency LTD, a firm that handles security for ABC News in New York and the Golden Globe Awards. "Most of them are avoidable."
One such nightmare occurred when PlayStation3 was released to the nation in November 2006. People who camped outside of stores were mugged, at least one person was shot and some customers reportedly were trampled by crowds lunging for the gaming system.
According to Palumbo, the key to avoiding a similar situation with first-day iPhone-buyers is having a plan that exerts crowd control and prevents "bad behavior."
Unfortunately, when those plans aren't put into place, things can go wrong quickly, he said.
"It's not that complicated," Palumbo said. "Most people do these things by the seat of their pants and the end result is people get hurt, crimes are committed."
With all its stores carrying the iPhone, AT&T isn't taking any chances.
In addition to staffing an additional 2,000 sales employees to cope with crowds, the company has also taken security precautions.
"We have 1,800 retail stores around the country," Mark Siegel, AT&T's director of public relations said. "We have planned in great detail how to handle the influx of customers, including the need to work on security."
Although Siegel refused to relay specifics, he said the company would focus on stores in all markets, not just the larger ones.
"We're doing what we need to for each store," he said.
Siegel also didn't rule out the use of police force, a course of action that Palumbo recommended, if necessary, in cases like these.
"We're involving the local authorities as we need to where that makes sense," Siegel said.
One online betting site, BetUs.com, is already wagering that someone could get hurt in the long waiting lines on Friday. The odds that someone will get trampled while trying to get an iPhone are 20/1.
AT&T isn't the only business taking precautions. Although indoor shopping malls won't likely have to contend with overnight campers like the ones who'll be stationed outside Apple stores, they'll still have to deal with Friday crowds.
Initially, the Westfield Topanga Canyon shopping center in Woodland Hills, Calif., just outside Los Angeles, only planned to increase its security staff for one day, but plans have changed because of the buzz surrounding the phone.
"We will be prepared to assist guests in forming an organized line beginning Thursday evening" in the mall's garage, Westfield spokeswoman Sarah Richardson said. "We're looking forward to Friday, and, as always, the safety of our shoppers is paramount."
Similarly, the Woodfield Mall in suburban Chicago is working with its security staff to develop a plan.
"Mall management is currently in discussion with the folks at Apple to make sure their plans go as smoothly as possible," spokeswoman Bonnie Pear said.
With a good security strategy in place, Palumbo said that trouble is avoidable -- and that maintaining good crowd flow is key. He suggested setting up physical barriers that will guide people through the store so that entry and exit is smooth.
"You create a structure or an order," he said. "Through materials, planning and personnel, you shouldn't be having any problems, quite frankly."
Despite projected crowds, the largest U.S. shopping center, the Mall of America in Bloomington, Minn., isn't planning any additional security, according to spokesman Dan Jasper.
"We're expecting heavy traffic, but nothing out of the ordinary," Jasper said. "Fridays in the summer are heavy traffic days for Mall of America. [We'll have] additional parking attendants and security anyway."
But Palumbo said he believes that the mall's lack of planning is a mistake.
"I think that's the wrong approach," he said of Mall of America's stance. "An ounce of prevention is worth of 100 pounds of cure. ... Something goes wrong, what do you do? You sit there and go, 'We're not worried,' and all of sudden they've got a riot on their hands. ... All they need is a large crowd of 1,000 people that they cannot contain and control."