Olly Galvin Acumen Safety

Acumen Safety’s Olly Galvin: How to judge whether an event can continue after doors have opened

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What criteria should you use to judge whether an event can continue after you have opened the doors? Olly Galvin, director of Acumen Safety, raises the question…

The event industry news is full of announcements of cancellations. Festivals taking stock of their situation and making the difficult decision to pull the plug. These decisions are typically financial – slow ticket sales or rising costs from the supply chain put the budget into the red and the event is no longer viable.

But what happens when the event can no longer continue after it’s opened its doors? What criteria should be used to judge whether the event can continue, and how should we manage the process?

I’ve been involved with a few festivals over the years where we have had to make the hard decision to abandon the event
part way through. Y Not Festival 2017 and Fire in the Park 2019 are the ones that stand out in memory. I’ve also been involved
with festivals that have done a great job of walking the line, keeping the site operating safely for their audience for the duration
of their planned event despite all the challenges that the event can throw at them. For me, Bluedot 2023 is a shining example of that success.

Fire in the Park

HOW MUCH MUD IS TOO MUCH?

Cancelling an event is a last resort. There are financial, reputational and operational implications that affect the event in future years. Abandoning a festival while it is open, cancelling the second or third day of the show, is a miserable experience and one that we all work hard to avoid.

When an event is operational, the decision to abandon or cancel will almost always come down to public safety. There isn’t a scenario that I can think of where the decision hinges on a factor other than safety. All of the event abandonments that I have been involved with in one way or another have had a common theme: Mud. Or more accurately, a significant deterioration in ground conditions.

So how do we assess public safety at a greenfield music festival in terms of whether or not the show can go on? How much mud is too much?

If a major incident has occurred, the show has probably been stopped and its resources directed to dealing with that incident. A major fire, collapse of a structure or a significant incident makes the decision to abandon the event relatively straightforward.

If the decision is less clear cut, ask yourself these four things:

  • Is the site infrastructure capable of meeting the basic needs of the audience? As a minimum, people need food, shelter, water, sanitation and at an event, entertainment. If suppliers can’t service loos or supply clean water, people are going to start getting ill and medical resources will become overwhelmed.
  • Are you able to deploy resources across the site to respond to incidents? If you can’t move medics, response teams or fire teams to where they’re needed, you can’t assure public safety across the site.
  • Are conditions across the site causing harm or injury to the audience? This is one for the medics – increased reports of lower limb injuries indicate hazardous site conditions.
  • Could you move the audience offsite in the event of an emergency? If your emergency exits are waterlogged, you won’t be able to achieve the flow rate that the exit calculations are based on. A slower evacuation time can mean that you can’t move your audience away from danger in the required timeframe should an incident occur.

THE RIGHT CALL

Fire in the Park Festival 2019 was a great test of these criteria. Extremely high volumes of rain the week before the event, coupled with a thin layer of topsoil on an urban site in Sheffield, meant that the ground was already waterlogged before we opened to the public.

Over the course of the day, that thin layer of topsoil got churned up by 10,000 attendees. More rain fell. Medics started
to report patterns of lower limb injuries. They expressed concerns about their ability to move a casualty from the stage to the medical tent. The grass in front of the emergency exits became a bog, and the exit routes ran through damaged ground in the backstage areas. Our site was not safe for 10,000 people. Our resilience for incident response had been lost.

At the 18:00 ELT meeting, it was clear that the site would not be safe to open for the second day. What should be done immediately for our compromised site? Do we stop the event at this point and move the audience off the site? Or can we safely manage the last four hours of the event and choose a “less unsafe” path?

The festival wasn’t a camping event. That made some decisions easier. As our egress routes deteriorated, the audience numbers decreased. We carried on with the event until the license ended – a steady flow of people exiting was safer than one big wave if the show was stopped. This gave the promoter time to tweak their communications plan – we would announce the next day’s cancellation once the public was offsite. It gave the site team time to reinstate the egress routes from the site as best they could. They installed additional lighting and deployed as much tracking as they could to the exit routes in the worst state.

We held off on telling the stakeholders until an hour before the public announcement was made. We didn’t want word to get out to our audience that the site was considered unsafe until they had left. Rumours can spread like wildfire.

TOPOGRAPHY AND TRACKWAY

Should we have opened to the public? I think we made the right call. The site was safe to open at midday. The event ran relatively safely. The ground conditions didn’t prevent anyone from getting the medical help that they needed.

What could the event have done differently? Outdoor events in late September are always going to be a gamble. This event was perhaps too late in the year because it was marketed to students. If money were no object, the event could have used more trackway. You can never have too much!

The event site was a key contributor to this scenario. The soil type, poor drainage and topography all contributed to the mudbath. Some of the infrastructure required by the urban location was plant machinery heavy – and plant machinery can really churn up
a site. Greenfield festivals in rural settings often have more options – additional fields they can rent, along with support from agricultural neighbours. Think carefully before you choose a small, hilly site surrounded by roads and buildings for your next event!

Hindsight is 20/20, as they say, and we are sometimes forced to walk a fine line in the world of outdoor events. Our audiences deserve safe event sites, and when we can no longer provide that it’s time to ask ourselves – should the show go on?