Saving Lives Before Saving Costs

Outdoor events would be safer if organisers paid more attention to saving lives and less attention to saving money, according to a conference run by the UK’s Association of Independent Festivals.

It was the recurring theme of the one-dayer at London’s Royal Festival Hall Feb. 3, when some of the country’s top production chiefs and safety experts looked at what can be learned from the stage collapses that shook last summer’s festival season.

The conference revealed that the main problems with festivals’ temporary structures were that some of the (presumably cheaper) contractors displayed an alarming lack of competence and that there’s a real need for some internationally accepted guidelines.

Although the stage disasters were the result of freak weather conditions, delegates heard how they also highlighted the shortcomings of some temporary stage structures and put a question mark over emergency procedures.

In the opening session, Rudi Enos, a design consultant whose company has built some of the world’s most impressive special structures, said it was time for the industry to adopt a new concept with “an emphasis on safety rather than an emphasis on cost.”

“In the past, commerciality has driven the industry. I think we can do better,” he said.

Enos showed footage of the disasters at Belgium’s Pukkelpop Festival and at Indiana State Fair in the U.S., followed by an address on the fundamental causes of stage collapses from an engineering perspective.

The pre-conference publicity carried a warning about cutting corners when Roger Barrett from Star Events, an international stage builder that supplies the main stages for Live Nation’s summer season in London’s Hyde Park, claimed that some staging companies are hardly qualified to do their jobs.

“In my experience, the lack of basic engineering knowledge shown by a great many suppliers of temporary structures to festivals is nothing short of disgraceful. So, whose fault is it that they get the work?” he asked, suggesting that some event organisers need to be more diligent when choosing suppliers.

The problem may be even more deep-seated, as Barrett told the conference that the Health & Safety Executive, which has taken on its new responsibility for inspecting temporary structures, had largely used inspectors who had no prior training and in some cases were not aware of the guidance that the HSE itself endorsed.

“So far they have been interested in work methods, not whether the structures were safe,” he said.

Professor Chris Kemp from Bucks New University’s centre for crowd management and safety studies, which specialises in safety at entertainment events, said that – apart from a good practice guide being produced by Yourope – there are no real pan-European regulations or standard procedures.

A month ago Yourope, the European festivals’ organisation, discussed the issue at Eurosonic-Noorderslag in The Netherlands. The subject is also likely to be on the agenda at next month’s International Live Music Conference (March 9-11).

While the lack of a pan-European code of practice remains a problem, it seems that the situation in the U.S. is just as bad.

“America is a mess. They don’t know what they’re doing from state to state,” explained Simon James, owner of the Event Safety Shop.

He said he’s almost certain of greater standards in the coming years.

Show & Events managing director Tony Ball, who was part of a panel on emergency evacuation procedures, was another to echo the need to put safety before savings.

“You never know why you lose a contract. I would say in most cases that it’s because of price,” he said.

Set up in 2008 by Bestival promoter Rob da Bank and Graphite Media chief Ben Turner, the Association of Independent Festivals is a nonprofit body representing independent festivals in the UK and Ireland.