Festival security: Developing risk management plans for public events

Concerts at public parks or on city property present many potential risks


With festival season approaching, security professionals recommend cities take a more proactive stance toward risk and require event organizers to submit risk-management plans for concerts and festivals taking place in parks and elsewhere on city property.

“In today’s uncertain world of evolving risks from homegrown, violent extremism, severe weather events and challenges associated with saturated events competing for resources and sponsors, it’s never been as important for cities and local organizing committees to adopt a risk-based approach to event and festival planning,” said Peter Ashwin, founder of Event Risk Management Solutions.

Ashwin, a former Australian Army Special Forces officer who has been consulting major events for 15-plus years, said he’s developed a library of more than 90 risks for festivals and events, including:

  • Escalating security and public safety costs
  • Changes in cost recovery for city services
  • Ability to secure headline talent for music festivals in a competitive and saturated market
  • Deterioration of festivals market share due to competing programs both locally and regionally
  • Changes in local/state government priorities for funding of festivals
  • Impact on city resources (including policing) by a “saturated” festivals and events calendar
  • Vehicle terror (ramming or intrusion) attacks against crowded places
  • Active shooter/threats: stand-off (sniper), direct attacks (close quarters) and edged weapons
  • Drones – unauthorized airspace intrusion over event site
  • Open carry – entry of legally licensed firearms into event and festival sites
  • Overcrowding resulting in crowd surges

“The challenge we now collectively face is how do we balance the requirement for enhanced security measures to mitigate current and future risks against the escalating cost of these measures versus the impact on attendee experience,” Ashwin continued.

According to Ashwin, the most effective approach is early engagement between safety and security stakeholders, including city planners, federal agencies, local law enforcement, fire and EMS.

“Developing a comprehensive risk-management plan, in cooperation with your stakeholders, ensures that event risks are identified, appropriately mitigated … and owned and managed by the right stakeholders,” he said.

Las Vegas Shooting Reaction

Just after the mass shooting at the Route 91 Harvest Festival in Las Vegas last October, USA Today interviewed Paul Wertheimer, head of Crowd Management Strategies.

Wertheimer, who’s been studying similar disasters around the world since 11 people were crushed to death at The Who’s concert in a Cincinnati stadium in 1979, said failure to have proper emergency planning, security and crowd control is the “thread that runs through all these mostly preventable disasters, from Manchester to Bataclan to Orlando to the Indiana State Fair to the Rhode Island nightclub.”

“In almost every disaster, standing room festival seating is at least a contribution to the chaos,” Wertheimer said. “There are no aisles, no direction and the crowd density is high. A lot of people are all leaving at once, they can’t find a way out and there is no one to give direction.”

“Live entertainment is the black hole of safety,” said Wertheimer.

Neighboring States Focus on Festival Security

Festival organizers and security professionals in neighboring states with events planned just after the Las Vegas shooting took notice.

“We need to think outside the box to cover every eventuality and scenario that can happen so that what happened in Las Vegas doesn’t happen here in Colorado,” Chris Villalpando, owner of Code 4 Security Services, told the Colorado Springs Gazette. The company provides services for large outdoor events in Denver and along the northern Front Range.

The Telluride Bluegrass Festival in Colorado, held in city’s Town Park, was a focus of the Gazette story.

“We don’t have any high-rise buildings like metro areas, but we’re in a box canyon,” said James Kolar, Telluride’s chief marshal. “If someone got up in trees or hillside, it might be just as difficult to spot somebody as it would be from a high-rise building.”

Last year, according to news station KOB4, the Albuquerque, New Mexico, mayor’s office, police department and organizers for the popular International Balloon Fiesta took steps to tighten security before the launch. More than 20 local, state and federal law enforcement agencies were monitoring Balloon Fiesta Park during the event.

“There’s always been an evacuation plan for Balloon Fiesta,” Albuquerque Police Chief Gorden Eden said on KOB4. “One of the things we look at is: What are the threats? Sometimes those threats are very simple like a butane tank rupture or something to that effect. We have plans in place for different types of incidents.”

“What we’re doing first off is re-examining every single thing that we planned, every single thing we have set up,” Tucson’s Dusk Music Festival co-founder Page Repp told the Arizona Star two days after the Las Vegas massacre. “We didn’t find any glaring holes, but just pre-emptively, to be safe, we are going to be increasing levels pretty much across the board.”

The 2018 Dusk Music Festival will be held at a new location, downtown at Armory Park, home of the Tucson Children’s Museum.

Columnist Larry Claflin, Jr., is a freelance writer based in New England and co-founder and former executive director of the non-profit Salem Jazz and Soul Festival. He is fascinated with the mechanics of city government and cultural development in cities.