Ultra Music Festival

General view of at Bayfront Park Amphitheater on March 30, 2014 in Miami, Florida.

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

Recent events at the Ultra 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.
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.”
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.”
Each genre of music has it’s 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 there 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.”