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The Reality of Risk: can you ever really be safe at a music festival?

With two people killed and 22 injured at the Austin-based SXSW festival this week, history suggests that this kind of tragedy would come from a crowd crush or stage collapse. The true horror is that these people were simply standing in line for a show. Greenfield event planner Josh Finesilver asks the question: can you ever really be safe at a music festival?

Despite preconceived misconceptions, artist bookings and outrageous rider demands are not the primary concerns for most festival organisers. Before Ozzie’s brandy glass feels the clatter of a single brown M&M, venue calculations and innumerate safety scenarios form the bulk of the planning.  Tense, dimly lit meetings with the police and emergency services, detailed event safety documents extending into the hundreds of pages: SXSW festival covered all of these bases. So when 21 year old Rashad Charjuan Owens, a rapper who was billed to play at SXSW, drove-drunk into a waiting queue in the early hours of last Thursday morning, the question for many event professionals is: could this have been prevented?

Despite roadblocks and manned police checkpoints, sentiment from some UK-based journalists and music industry reps is that more could have been done. Alex Lee Thomson, Director of London-based Green House Group, was in Austin the night of the crash.

“It doesn’t surprise me that accidents such as this happened. Public transport in US cities is pretty much non-existent. Having been out there with Americans bar-hopping and going about SX I can say that most of them drive just because they have to, regardless of whether they’ve had a few drinks or not. It’s the only way home for most of them outside of a $60 cab ride, if you can stomach the two hour wait to get one. I was two streets over when this happened so it could have been me or any of my friends in hospital, so we were very shaken, but the blame has to be put on the infrastructure, not the people. They’re just doing what they’re used to, again, because they have no other option.”

He makes a damning point, and is not alone in voicing it. From a statistical point of view, better public transport would inevitably lead to less drink driving. The reason there weren’t more deaths was, in part, due to the emergency services planning; local medical teams had conducted eerily similar scenario exercises shortly before. Little more planning could have been done to prevent what seems like an isolated event.

For most people hearing about the tragedy, the festival organiser point of view is irrelevant. After the deaths at SXSW, and various other tragedies that occur at festivals internationally, festival goers are more likely to ask – is this safe for me? This answer to this question is less about reality and more about the perception of risk.

For festivals-goers in 2014, the truth is that they are safer than they have ever been. Why? Because humanity is good at learning from its mistakes.

Students of event and safety management are played case study after grisly case study illustrating how safety has evolved. The deaths of two men at Donington Festival in 1988 led towards the publication of The Purple Guide, the gold standard ‘how-to’ for outdoor festival safety. Industry expert, former Chair of Showsec and founder of the Centre for Crowd Management, Mick Upton was Head of Security at Donington Festival in 1988.

“The leisure security industry has made a great deal of progress since the fatal crowd related accidents that occurred at Donington. However some event organisers today tend to suffer from what I call terminology overload. It is not the size of the crowd that creates accidents; it is the failure to plan that causes accidents.”

Examples that illustrate this type of poor planning stretch into their hundreds. Crowd pressures at the Love Parade festival in Berlin saw 21 killed. More recently at the 2011 Indiana State Fair, the collapse of the stage resulted in a huge overhaul for event safety in the United States. Five days later, unprecedented storms at Pukkelpop Festival in Belgium saw more death and injury.

Feel better yet? You should. This is where the concern for the average person should end. Get used to your helplessness – there really is nothing you can do about it. Despite the uncomfortable narrative, you really are safer than you have ever been.

You should not be concerned. Just as we don’t live our lives in a sanitised environment, free from risk, minimise your concern for the festival environment to a healthy respect for yourself and your peers.  Why? Because there are plenty of things more likely to hurt you at a festival than anything mentioned above. Excessive drinking, poorly cooked food, being vulnerable alone, dehydration, dubious sexual encounters, being aggressive/confrontational, excessive illegal drug taking, excessive legal drug taking, excessive pharmaceutical drug taking, poor drinking water and, as research has already established, your car journey there.

So the answer to the headline of this article is, frankly, no. Of course you can’t be truly safe at a festival. You can’t be truly safe anywhere. But consider the true risks of ordinary events: for example, a vending machine is far more likely to kill you than a shark attack.

In a world where fear is stamped into our subconscious on a regular basis, try not to dwell on the things you cannot change, but take responsibility for yourself. Help your friends take responsibility for themselves. Don’t join the collective unconscious or dwell on the improbable: it’s the real, everyday risks that are likely to cause you harm. Take a leaf from the professionals and plan your way to a safe and enjoyable festival. You’ll feel much better. As for me, I think I’ll take the train.

Josh Finesilver is a green-field event planner and guest lecturer in Events Management.

Some excellent resources on crowd safety for attendees.
Some excellent resources on event safety for organisers.
If you fancy terrifying yourself.
Read the NHS guidelines to festival safety.

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