With the City of Austin's surrounding areas recovering from a devastating outbreak of wildfires, and with the threat of more fires undiminished, the City of Austin is gearing up for it's 10th ACL Festival in Austin's Zilker Park this weekend. Held in the greenbelt area of the park known as "The Great Lawn" and surrounded by live oaks and other trees, an estimated 70,000-100,000 people will attend some or all of this weekends Festival, either as concert-goers or as staff. Even though thousands of gallons of water from Lake Austin have helped keep Zilker green during the drought, City and Park officials this week are making a huge effort to remind Festival goers that smoking has been banned in all City of Austin parks due to the extreme wildfire hazard, and that does include Zilker Park during this weekends ACL Festival.
We had a chance to discuss safety and security during the ACL Festival with the City of Austin's Parks Department Special Events Coordinator Jason Maurer and Victor Ovalle from the City's Public Information Office, and what they told us was both reassuring and somewhat disconcerting. While the City has gone to great lengths to make sure everyone has a safe and fun show, and a tremendous number of City agencies, from police, fire and EMS to event code enforcement are involved in the safety planning and execution, most of the burden of the safety and security for the event rests in the hands of the event promoters, C3 Presents, who declined to participate in this article. Additionally security and safety information, including emergency exit information, was unavailable due to Homeland Security restrictions.
In events such as these an event promoter, in this case C3 Presents, leases a park from the City of Austin for a certain period of time subject to certain restrictions and with a number of requirements, including an event safety plan. Once the promoters lease on the park starts it is much like a renting an apartment, everything beyond the doorway is the renters responsibility and the property owner, in this case the City of Austin, can only enter the property under specific terms during that period. In layman's terms, from Festival setup through breakdown, the City Park becomes private property of C3 Presents.
City planning for the event occurs year round and involves everything from closing streets and re-routing traffic to food safety and other safety and emergency concerns. Every department involved in the ACL Festival, which is just about every department it seems, "has a role at the table" in the regular planning meetings with all departments serving as part of an "infinite command" model according to Ovalle. These plans include the regular day to day activity plans, traffic plans, weather plans, and disaster plans. These departments work and coordinate with C3 Presents to develop these plans and at the end of the day everyone involved has to sign off on the plans developed with or presented by C3 for the festival to occur.
The City of Austin will maintain a command post on-site and in the event of a disaster has the ability and authority to call in first responders, take over festival operations, and shut down or evacuate the event should something catastrophic occur as part of the "Infinite Command" model BUT the City does not maintain an official police, fire, or medical presence on site. Those services are provided by the concert promoter and its various contractors, such as W3 Event Security and others. Many of these contractors include local off-duty fire and police members and other first responders, some do not, employing contractors with specialized training and certifications in some roles, little or basic training in others depending on the requirements of the role. City of Austin staff and first responders will be working OUTSIDE the event, but not on the park grounds itself. Due to Homeland Security restrictions the City of Austin was unable to provide us with an exact number of security and safety staff on-site in the plan submitted by C3, however they stated it was well above 100. Nationwide law enforcement statistics show that staffing levels are usually 2 per 1000 people, so a rough estimate of people who could be considered as "first responders' would be between 140 to 200 people on site. We don't know how many there actually are.
In the event of an emergency, the large video screens will be utilized to direct the audience, with a variety of crowd control messages already queued up for use as needed. The huge speaker systems will also be used to direct the crowd as needed. City officials will NOT be relying on or broadcasting SMS instant messaging or "Tweeting" due to the unreliability of electronic communications in events of this nature. Having suffered through AT&T through several SXSW events I can confirm and attest to that unreliability. While C3 Presents may utilize electronic messaging resources, they were unavailable to comment. In the event of a catastrophic nature the City will take over the direction of the crowd and has that ability from the command center.
In terms of exits, the event is designed to have 2 main entrances and exits, both appearing as entrances on the rudimentary maps published by the ACL Festival itself. According to City officials emergency exits do exist and will be plainly marked, though they were unable to provide us with locations or photographs, nor were they able to allow us to take photographs, as that would require permission from C3, which we have been unable to obtain as they have declined to participate. The event itself will be enclosed in a single or double chain link fence. The City has stated that numerous sections of the fence are removable and have been notated on their maps as "Emergency Exits", but again were unable to provide details due to Homeland Security issues and such details do not appear in the map provided on the ACL Festival web site.
According to Ovalle and Maurer the portable stages used at ACL Festival, and at other events on City of Austin property, are the responsibility of the promoters, again C3 Presents. The City of Austin does not have specific code or standards regarding the construction or erection of portable stages, and thus no City of Austin Code Enforcement or Fire official inspect the numerous stages before, during, or after the event. The stages are supposed to be constructed as per the manufacturers specifications and certified as such by the constructor to the promoter. In the end any responsibility for the safe construction and erection of, or inspection of, portable stages is solely C3 Presents and the various contractors supplying it with services.
The City wants people to have a safe and fun concert and they want everyone to remember to bring important things such as medications and sunscreen, and to stay hydrated which will be important in this heat. And, of course, no smoking!