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Festival security: anticipating the unexpected

The music festival industry was under the microscope in 2014 due to four deaths that occurred within a two-week period across Canada.


January 19, 2015
By Barry Wilding and Ken Hoggart

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Two patrons died at an EDM (Electronic Dance Music) festival in Toronto, and two patrons died at separate festivals in British Columbia. The deaths immediately raised concerns regarding public safety from authorities and patrons alike. The media took note and started asking questions, inquiring with several upcoming festivals regarding steps they were going to take to prevent any further fatalities. If only it were that easy.

Hosting a music festival is a massive undertaking, and most promoters make safety a top concern. Planning the security for a major music festival takes a great deal of time, money, resources and experience. Unfortunately, people die at music festivals every year. That’s a fact. There are murders, suicides, accidental deaths, many of which are drug or alcohol-involved. One could easily argue that there is a correlation in the number of deaths reported from drug related causes and the rise in popularity of the EDM (Electronic Dance Music) scene and the use of MDMA (active ingredient in Ecstasy) – based drugs at music festivals.

The question becomes “How do we as security professionals acknowledge the personal responsibility of attendees and still stop them from willfully ingesting illegal drugs?” The answer is, we can’t. We can, however, take many precautionary steps in an attempt to mitigate or reduce the risk with access controls and consent searches, but we can never completely stop it from happening. No promoter or security provider can prevent all drugs from entering a festival site. Nor can do they do anything about drugs consumed before an attendee walks through the gate. The burden of responsibility shifts to the individual attendees.

Aside from the risk of drug use and drug related incidents, there are other risks that festival security professionals must consider. A few things that we have learned along the way about the music festival industry and managing public safety throughout the years is to expect the unexpected, plan for various contingencies, learn from previous festivals, and do our best to warn and educate the promoters of the risks involved and effective ways to mitigate those risks.

We never expected:
• A barricade to collapse triggering a mass causality incident sending 20 plus patrons to the hospital until it happened to us during the 2010 Winter Olympics.
• Having to move a suicidal patron high on PCP down from his perch 100 feet up in a tree
• A biker gang showing up wearing their colours and wanting to crash the gate
• Having a river get contaminated with a green dye in the middle of a music festival and finding ourselves asking: Was it toxic? Where was the source? Who may have put it there and why did they put it there? Implementing the Emergency Management Plan and making phone calls to the authorities all while trying to keep patrons out of the water — how do you do that without causing further panic?

Bad drugs make good people act badly. How do your prepare for multiple cases of excited delirium in one day with security and medical resources stretched thin because of other incidents happening at the same time? What do you do when security guards walk off the site and quit on the second day of the festival? What could have been done to prevent them from leaving?

These are just some examples of the types of challenges posed at a music festival. Many can be eliminated or mitigated through planning, experience, proper resources and the ability to execute that plan under pressure.

Barry Wilding is a licensed security consultant with twenty years of concert, festival and major event experience (www.wildingassociates.com)

Ken Hoggart is a security trainer, consultant, and operations manager for various security companies and promoters throughout Canada (www.universaldtts.com)


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