Summer Festival Safety: The Perennial Issues & New Challenges In 2014

photo: Kyleen James

Crowds flocked to the Sunset Strip Music Festival in 2013.

The unofficial start of the North American festivals season begins this weekend with the Coachella Valley Music & Arts Festival in Indio, Calif., amid the usual concerns about the overall safety of live music festivals.

Recent events at the Ultra Music Festival in Miami and SXSW in Austin again refocused attention on safety issues at festivals. Much like accidents at theme parks, plane crashes, or even someone being struck by lightning, the rarity of such occurrences makes them news. But with millions of fans attending music festivals and relatively few incidents ever taking place, the fact is, festivals are inherently safe events. Beyond that, festival-goers across the country can be assured that promoters, producers and thousands of safety and security professionals are planning, preparing, staffing, and spending lots of money to keep them safe.

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At the overwhelming majority of music festivals, patron safety is the No. 1 concern. Carl Monzo, president of National Event Services, oversees security and medical operations for such festivals as Coachella, Bonnaroo, Electric Forrest, Wakarusa, Pemberton and Tortuga, and he believes music fans should be confident they will have a safe and secure experience at festivals this summer.

"The promoters go to great extremes to make sure that [festivals] are safe," Monzo, on-site at Coachella on opening day, tells Billboard. Planning begins as much as a year in advance, and involves event producers, safety/security pros, state and local law enforcement and emergency management agencies, and even local hospitals.

The safety program begins during the site build-out, and ramps up as fans arrive, creating the first logistical crowd management challenge. "People under-estimate how important it is getting people in and out safely," says Monzo. "We look at the traffic, the parking, the ingress and egress. We make sure that when the people are entering the festival the vehicle traffic is not crossing the pedestrian traffic, a huge obstacle to overcome. It takes a lot of planning on the mapping side to make sure that doesn't happen."

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An event like Coachella will be taking care of some 180,000 people over the course of its six days, so proper staffing is critical. Many variables dictate staffing, including weather, genre, and time of day, so there is no rule of thumb. "A reputable promoter or producer is going to look at their overall festival and decide what we're going to need to make it safe," Monzo says. "From the medical side, the few states that do have laws that govern [staffing], the numbers don't correlate to what the actual need is, usually it's a minimum standard. If you look at a festival like Bonnaroo, the numbers the state requires are very low, but the numbers actually provided are potentially 10 times that amount. But that's what we know we need in order to cover the whole [750-acre] property safely."

A camping festival requires more staff than a non-camping festival, "because we're putting together a small city, and it has to be staffed 24 hours a day," Monzo observes. Adequate staffing is an expensive proposition, but it's an expense most top producers are willing to pay.

"I never look at a budget number when I prepare a deployment, I look at what I think is going to be safe, then we take that and put a budget number with it and turn it over to the promoter," says Monzo. "Obviously they're going to question it, not necessarily in a negative way, but more what was our thought process when we designed it."

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Each genre of music has its own safety challenges, whether it's unruly behavior, alcohol, drugs, "herd" mentality, or simply fan inexperience. "I worry about the ages of the attendees, who's coming to the show, what is their level of concert-going experience?" says Monzo. "How vulnerable are they to peer pressure? What are these other kids offering them that they may feel they need to do to fit in?"

Monzo says he's seeing more promoters set minimum age requirements now. "You see festivals with an 18-plus or for some of the EDM shows it's a 21-plus crowd," he says, "and I do believe it helps. We get kids that are a little older, maybe a little bit more experienced with what it is they're doing."

Typically EDM crowds skew young. While EDM events have made headlines in recent months due to safety and security issues, Cory Meredith, president of major security firm Staff Pro, believes the genre gets a bad rap, and that EDM fests are not inherently more risky than other events, including those in metal, urban, or the "drunk cowboys" at country fests.

"Frankly, EDM is not that difficult to do, compared to a lot of other events," says Meredith, whose firm oversees crowd management for such events as Electric Daisy Carnival Las Vegas, HARD Summer, and Day of the Dead.  "It's all about planning and carrying through with the plan. You have to know your audience, you have to communicate with performers and promoters, and you adjust your plan based on the demographics and culture of the music."

There are certain truths, stereotypical or not, about fan behavior in specific genres, but each event is its own animal and is regarded as such by safety/security professionals. As the lines between genres blur, so do the behaviors associated with fans of these genres, and most mainstream festivals today touch on many different types of music. "It used to be you'd see this [behavior] with this type of show. Now we keep a really open mind, because we're seeing just about everything," Monzo says.

The perennial issues at music festivals since the '60s — alcohol and drugs — remain a challenge today. "Alcohol and drugs are prevalent in our society, we're seeing it in the towns and cities, of course we're going to see it at the festivals," Monzo points out. "But the spotlight is on the festival world. The press is going to jump all over it when something bad goes down. You don't see the same response when a kid has an alcohol or drug issue in the local town or city, because it's so commonplace they don't address it."

Messaging about drugs and alcohol and other safety issues routinely appears on festival websites. At the event, safety staff are far more concerned about helping someone having problems than heavy-handed enforcement. "At some of the festivals, we've gone so far as to put slogans on the back of the safety and medical shirts, saying 'Hey, we're here for you, we're judgment free,' because we don't want them to be afraid to ask for help if they need it," Monzo says. "The largest number of people you're going to have staff-wise is your safety and medical people, and when they're walking through the crowds and have stuff on their backs that says 'trust us,' it helps. We would see kids bring their friends to the medical tents and in a lot of cases drop 'em off and run, because they're afraid. Our goal over the last couple of years is how do we build that trust amongst [music fans]. The signage and the shirts and the things we've done, we've got that message down, and the kids do respond to it."

In many ways, festival-goers are self-policing, and Monzo sees many cases of music fans taking care of each other. "I definitely see a sense of community at the festivals, these kids do look out for each other," he says. "Everybody should be taking care of themselves, but everybody should be taking care of each other, too. We recommend the buddy system, you come with somebody, you stay with somebody, you look out for that person. When everybody looks out for each other, we're going to have a lot less problems."

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In general, Monzo believes festival producers do a good job of staging safe and secure events.  "It's in their best interest," he says. "They're in it for the long-term, they want to build an event that's going to go year after year, and if they're experiencing issues either from local or state public safety agencies, or they get mounted pressures from the media if there are complaints, it can be a problem. We want to staff [events] so the kids have an enjoyable experience, and if they do have an issue, we're able to treat it quickly and safely on site. If the person needs to go to the hospital we have adequate ambulances to get them there. The hospitals are all part of the process, as well, they're included in the planning, they know what we're doing, what to expect, what are capabilities are on site, and they know if we send something to them that it exceeds those capabilities."

Like Monzo, Meredith believes effective crowd management begins with event's producer, who must be willing to financially invest in safety. "We're fortunate enough to work with Insomniac, Live Nation, HARD, promoters who spend the money to do it right," says Meredith, who adds that a safe and secure event does not come cheap. "It does cost money to staff these events correctly, and the promoters we deal with spend a lot of money to make sure [events are] managed correctly and professionally."