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Lesson learned last summer didn’t make it into Lollapalooza safety plan

By Heather Gillers, Chicago Tribune –

CHICAGO — With 270,000 fans expected to swarm Grant Park this weekend for Lollapalooza, the city and the concert promoter have been working for months on a severe weather plan that anticipates wind, tornadoes, lightning and hail.

The 2012 Lollapalooza Severe Weather Plan makes emergency decisions a joint process, declaring that “the internal decision to suspend festival activities and move patrons to a safe area rests with the (promoter) C3 Presents partners, in conjunction with City of Chicago Public Safety Officials.”

But the written plan is unclear on what would happen if the safety officials and the promoter are in conflict — a situation that can stifle quick decisions. That type of conflict helped lead to tragedy in the weather-related collapse of a stage structure last year in Indianapolis.

An independent expert who analyzed what happened at the Indiana State Fair, where seven concertgoers were killed, said that plans should leave no ambiguity about who makes the final call in an emergency.

“It is not in the best interest of public safety to have ambiguity about who is responsible for the decision about whether the show should be delayed,” said Charlie Fisher of Witt Associates, which conducted an eight-month independent assessment of emergency preparedness by the Indiana State Fair.

“It should be very clear: ‘this is who is going to make the call’ and ‘this is how the call is going to be made.’”

Fisher said he was speaking generally about concert safety, not about what was happening in Chicago, because he’s never reviewed the plan here.

The Indiana State Fair Commission has updated its emergency management plan to designate the fair’s newly hired chief operating officer as the ultimate decision-maker on evacuation, said Fisher, who has reviewed the plan.

C3’s written weather plan for a music festival it runs in Austin, Texas, acknowledges that city officials would have final authority in any emergency, something Lollapalooza’s weather plan does not do.

C3 spokeswoman Shelby Meade said that — even if it’s not in writing — C3 staff know that city public safety officials are the ultimate emergency decision-makers at Lollapalooza.

But the advice of a state police captain to evacuate the grandstand at the Indiana State Fair initially went unheeded — despite the fact that the fairgrounds were under state police jurisdiction — because the state fair director and the band’s tour manager disagreed with the police recommendation. The conflict may have delayed evacuation of the Indiana State Fair grandstand Aug. 13, 2011, as high winds approached, and may have contributed to the seven deaths and more than 40 injuries that occurred when the stage structure toppled over into the audience.

As the storm drew close, the Witt report found, authorities on the ground gave conflicting advice. A state police captain wanted to evacuate the grandstand. The tour manager for the band, Sugarland, which had a show planned in Iowa the following day, wanted the concert to go forward.

Without clear guidance on who should make the decision, Indiana State Fair director Cindy Hoye agreed to go forward with the concert, explaining later to investigators that “nobody is going to tell (the band) what to do.” The Witt report found that by the time Hoye decided to defer to the police captain, it was too late. The structure collapsed as the fair director and police captain were on their way up to the stage to order an evacuation

Bands would not have a say in a weather evacuation of Lollapalooza in Chicago, but the promoter clearly does, according to the official plan. Delores Robinson, spokeswoman for Chicago’s Office of Emergency Management and Communications, said stopping or evacuating the concert would be “a joint decision, a collaborated decision between C3 Partners and city of Chicago public safety officials.”

Melissa Stratton, director of news affairs for Chicago police, said that “should the need arise, the city will take whatever steps are necessary to ensure the safety of event attendees and residents, while working closely with the event organizers at every step.”

Both C3 Presents and Chicago’s emergency management office say the kind of conflict that undermined safety at the Indiana State Fair could never happen at Lollapalooza.

“Because of the strong relationship and shared role C3 and the city have taken in developing this festival and ensuring fan safety, there is no conceivable scenario where there would be a conflict about how to proceed,” Meade said.

“I don’t see there arising a conflict,” agreed Robinson, the emergency management office spokeswoman, “because everyone there is operating for the safety of the public.”

Meade said “there is no ambiguity” about how emergency decisions are made: “Only the city and C3 are involved in the decision-making process during an emergency and we are in full agreement on a unified approach.”


C3’s weather plan for the Austin City Limits festival, which it also produces in a city park, declares in the introduction that “city officials are in overall command of any emergency,” a sentence that does not appear in the Lollapalooza plan.

“I think it’s a great clause,” said Jason Maurer, events manager for the Austin Parks and Recreation Department. “It’s good for them to have it in their plan for their employees, for their team; it’s good to see an acknowledgment of knowing where that decision should lie.”

The language in the Lollapalooza weather plan stating that any decision to stop and evacuate the concert would be made “in conjunction with city of Chicago Public Safety Officials” is new this year. The 2011 weather plan simply stated that “the internal decision to suspend festival activities and move patrons to a safe area rests with the C3 Presents partners.”

Meade said that even though the language was different, the policy last year was the same as it is this year.

“Whether in writing or not, there is never a question on our part as to who makes the ultimate decisions in an emergency—the emergency leaders of that city have the authority,” she said.

In the event of an evacuation, fans would take shelter in the Grant Park North and South garages and the East Monroe Street Garage, according to the weather plan.

Lollapalooza’s eight stages in Chicago are being inspected by local building authorities, and according to plans filed with the city, C3 plans to have wind and weather monitoring equipment at the concert. Meade said Lollapalooza will also have its own emergency services director, who has more than 20 years of public safety experience and will be in regular communication with city officials.

Carol Cwiak, assistant professor of emergency management at North Dakota State University, said sometimes cities agree to emergency-weather plans that enlist promoters in decision-making because it makes the city a more attractive place to hold an event.

“It will limit private sector partners from wanting to come into those jurisdictions and do events if they feel like their control is removed,” she said.

But she said cities should be careful when sharing that authority.

“The promoter has a monetary interest,” Cwiak said. “They probably want to take care of people as well. But that’s not their primary interest.”

Meade said “C3 has no financial incentive to, nor interest in, proceeding with a festival that would endanger fans.”

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