This week In the Hot Seat with Larry LeBlanc: Jim Digby, founder & chairman, Event Safety Alliance.
Jim Digby is optimistic that if his peers embrace a safety-based culture lives will be spared.
In 2011, following the Indiana State Fair outdoor stage roof collapse, the Philadelphia-based production veteran joined with other event industry professionals to launch the Event Safety Alliance (ESA).
ESA’s focus is centered on identifying, and distilling the standards and codes that apply to the live event industry; as well as teaching the best in operational practices, and decision-making criteria--from building scaffolding, setting up large outdoor stages, to establishing evacuation plans, and planning for inclement weather--that would allow those working in the industry to work safely.
Digby’s safety concerns date back to 1983 when, during the grand opening of a nightclub in a suburb of Philadelphia, he witnessed a woman being struck by a falling light fixture that killed her.
Digby was the technician operating the light figure.
In the wake of the 2011 Indiana State Fair disaster with Sugarland, when heavy winds knocked a stage down and killed seven people, Digby decided it was time to push for increased safety awareness in the music event business, and spearheaded the creation of the Event Safety Alliance.
In 2014, ESA published the Event Safety Guide, a treatise to help industry professionals recognize safe workplace practices, heighten their appreciation for life safety, and make reasonable decisions in their daily work.
As well as his ESA role, Digby is the owner of Collaborative Endeavor Group (CEG), which provides international touring strategies, and production solutions for the live entertainment industry. He has served as director of touring and production for Linkin Park since 2002 and has also worked with Bon Jovi, the Backstreet Boys, and Marilyn Manson.
As of this year, Digby is also a director of the Behind the Scenes Foundation, which provides entertainment technology professionals, who are seriously ill or injured, with grants that may be used for basic living and medical expenses.
You worked at the Pulsations Night Club near Philly which opened with a fatal accident in 1983.
Right. I was working at the facility before it opened. The Encore Dinner Theatre portion of the facility opened in advance of the club portion of the facility. I had been hired, more or less, right out of electronics school to be a technician for the dinner theater. Part of that role was that we had the option to book overtime, and help construct the nightclub. So I was involved with both entities which were housed under the same roof. When the nightclub came to open, I had been tapped to be the lighting operator and the special effects operator. There were others too, but I had it for the early days.
[Rolling Stone described Pulsations, as “the monster dance club that brought Studio 54 vibes to West Philadelphia.” The club was actually located in Delaware County—not West Philly. At 15,000 square feet, Pulsations featured 10 levels, 11 bars, and 12 VIP hotel rooms. In the early-morning hours of Nov. 19, 1983, 15 minutes into the club's grand opening, as 2,000 people danced to disco music amid 12-foot speakers on hydraulic lifts, and multicolored lights, a lighting fixture fell killing Margaret Jones, a 37-year-old Media, Penn. woman, and injuring five others. The family of the dead woman sued the club in 1984, and the case was settled out of court In 1987. Despite incident, the club ran to 1995.]
On that opening night, I was the one pushing the button of the special-effect lighting fixture that came off the ceiling right through the skull of Margaret Jones. She was 8 feet from where I was standing, and it killed her dead. The contractors had rushed to finish (for the opening) and had not installed a welded steel end-stop at the end of the track. They had not installed the micro switches to turn off the engine that drove the lighting fixture. Instead, they had installed a C-clamp at the end of the track. The device knocked the C-clamp off, came off the track, and went through her head.
Was this a chandelier?
No, it wasn’t a chandelier. This was in 1983 with the mindset of (New York discos) Studio 54 and The Limelight. This was a very high-tech, high-energy special effect-driven nightclub; meaning that there was a 22-foot diameter spaceship that tracked from the back of the house. Alongside that spaceship, there were designed-themed shuttle crafts that escorted the spaceship out into the house if you will. Each of those shuttle crafts was made of two aerodynamic police lights mounted to a 4-inch I-beam. On the back of the I-beam, there was a couple hundred pound factory trolley motor that drove the thing back-and-forth. So the total weight was something like 500 or 700 pounds.
Very traumatic to everybody, especially to you if you were standing by her.
I wasn’t just standing there. I was the operating the fixture. My finger was on the button.
How old were you?
I had just turned 20.
Then there was the inquest and the lawsuit.
It changed who I am as a human being, period. Somebody died at my fingertips. Not to mention what it did to her, and her family.
After the incident, the club reopened the same night.
They had to keep operating. It happened off in the corner where the DJ booth was. The club was full with 2,500 people. It was the grand opening night. A press night.
A gigantic club with the latest in hi-tech. What could go wrong?
We were all working hours that were ridiculous in an effort to keep our jobs and get the club to open. It was the '80s so we were all just into it. That was the seed that lay dormant inside Jim Digby until the Sugarland event.
[Seven people died, and 58 were injured in 2011 when the stage collapsed at a Sugarland concert in Indianapolis at the Indiana State Fair. At least four lawsuits were instigated as a result of the collapse.]
Following the Indiana State Fair outdoor stage roof collapse, you joined with other event industry professionals to form the Event Safety Alliance.
The conversations began in the months after Sugarland in late summer or early Fall of 2011. By 2012, the conversations that we were having as a group of individuals around the industry, representing different elements of the industry, started to become routine. There was a real momentum to get something done. It became apparent that an organization needed to exist in order to propel the (safety) mission, and the ESA was born out of that need.
When the Sugarland tragedy occurred, and it hit the news, the seed of Pulsations from 1983 was still embedded in me. It made me react in such a way. Also part of the story is that my first born son came in 2009 two months early, and was near death. We had about 6 weeks of touch-and-go with him. And that raised an appreciation of mortality in me to a different level.
When Sugarland happened and I heard the news, I was at home in my home office. My then 2 ½-year-old son was playing and I could hear him playing. A minute later, it went quiet. I thought, “I better check this out.” I looked everywhere and I couldn’t find him. I eventually found him in the pantry having climbed the pantry shelves going after Halloween candy or something. I asked, “What are you doing?” He said, “Nothing. I’m okay dad.” Then I waited for it. “Dad, can you get me down?” Insignificant in itself, but that night lying in bed I connected my son saying, “Dad, can you get me down?” to the 7 people who died at the Sugarland show who had an expectation of safety, just like my son, when they came to that show, and found themselves going home in body bags. It was totally unacceptable.
At the time I sat on the board of the Tour Link Conference and one of my duties was to develop content for discussion at the touring conference. (In 2012) I had written a proposal on safety in our industry and sent it down the line. It didn’t get the reaction that I had hoped it would which only served to energize me more. Then one phone call led to two and then to four and 8 people on the phone. The next thing we were having conference calls.
How many people are involved today?
If you combine all of our social media numbers and our mailing list, 5,000 people are routinely hearing from us.
You personally must have faced a sizable learning curve early on.
What happened for Jim Digby following Sugarland, and the visceral reaction that it brought, was that I needed to know more (about safety). I had been out there producing events and didn’t really know what I was doing. I thought, “If this could happen to my friends over at Sugarland, it can happen to me.” I then looked for any opportunity to educate myself that was related to what I did for a living.
There probably wasn’t much out there in terms of event safety education for music touring units.
There is an organization, the International Association of Venue Managers, that runs a week-long study opportunity called The Academy For Venue Safety and Security. So I attended that. I was the first production person to attend. It is typically attended by venue operations managers and venue security directors. There was a lot going on there that directly worked hand-in-hand with what I was doing. It made me question, “Why the hell don’t we have this learning opportunity?”
One of the people I met there was Steve Adelman (of Adelman Law Group in Scottsdale, Arizona) who is an attorney (and now also VP of ESA). He spoke so eloquently about duty of care, and reasonable foreseeability (the facility to perceive, know in advance, or reasonably anticipate damage or injury) that it made me realize that I had been operating as the adult in charge all these years without the knowledge that I am legally bound under the duty to care clause (under tort law) to do X, Y, and Z. It scared the living daylights out of me. After having learned about it, my reaction was, “All my peers need to know about this. How am I going to get all my peers to know about this? Which was one of the stimuli to bring about ESA.
[In tort law, a duty of care is a legal obligation imposed on an individual requiring adherence to a standard of reasonable care while performing any acts that could foreseeably harm others. It is the first element that must be established to proceed with an action in negligence. Breaching a duty may subject an individual to liability. With each of the 50 U.S. states being a separate sovereign free to develop its own tort law under the Tenth Amendment, there are several tests for finding a duty of care in United States’ tort law.]
You could be legally held responsible personally in case of a mishap or injury? You wouldn’t be indemnified through a work contract with someone you are working for?
Yes, there are insurances that protect me, but I also have the legal duty of care for all of those things that are under my direct sphere of influence at a show site. That doesn’t include an audience use case. In that case, the promoter of the venue has the duty of care for the audience. In my use case, I have the duty of care for the touring package. What shows up on the buses, and the trucks.
Negligence, if proved, would still factor in a legal action.
It’s actually worse than that. In Europe, corporate manslaughter is the charge now (in an action leading to a death due to negligence of duty of care) and that’s coming to the States. The oversimplification of that is that if I’m the production or tour manager or the band agent or the band manager, and I accept a routing from a booking agent that has an illegal drive in it, and I “grease” my drivers to make that illegal drive, and my driver goes through the (driving time) limit and crosses (highway) lanes, hits a van, and takes out a family of four, everybody in the chain of causation goes to jail.
Driving beyond legal limits is routinely done on many North American tours.
You better believe it. Absolutely. So when I run into these things my reaction is to bring it back to my peers in the industry. The vehicle in which we are able to do that is the ESA. We have managed to get some pretty capable characters around us who are helping us broaden our knowledge base. We have experts from around the world that speak at our conferences on things that the U.S. isn’t even considering at this point. We have instructors from the UK who come in and teach us about crowd dynamics and crowd psychology. Things that are not currently being offered to those in the trenches who actually operate events (in the U.S.)
Are tour transportation personnel involved with the ESA?
Yeah, there are already a few who are involved. Anyone can be involved. In Europe, you don’t get away with it (driving over set time limits). In Europe, your driver’s license is attached to an electronic card—a tachograph (a tachometer providing a record of engine speed over a period)—that is a tattletale card. You do four hours, you have to do a 15-minute break. And there are always two drivers in the cab of the bus in Europe. I sleep in my European buses. I don’t sleep in U.S. buses. If a driver is hammering down or worse trying to get to the next city to get that bonus check, I’m not interested in that anymore. I now have kids to come home to.
The live music industry has continually faced ongoing paradigm shifts brought about by individual tragedies. With each tragedy there’s concern, and then industry seems to let safety issues slip again.
Yeah. Unfortunately few of these standards and codes in any industry space come about without some sort of problem catalyzing them, right? Otherwise, we would just run off and do our own thing. It’s, “Who cares about standards and regulations?” You go back to the garment factory fire in New York in 1911, it wasn’t until then that somebody started thinking about, “Jeez, there ought to be emergency exits, and there ought to be fire codes.”
[The Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire in New York City in 1911 was one of the deadliest industrial disasters in American history. The fire caused the deaths of 146 garment workers. It led to the founding of the American Society of Safety Engineers the same year; to legislation requiring improved factory safety standards, and it spurred the growth of the International Ladies' Garment Workers' Union which fought for better working conditions for sweatshop workers.]
The roots of the music touring in North American is the circus business in which performers and crews also move from city to city.
It was the carney mentality. It still is the carney mentality. For us in the entertainment industry, we are built of this moxie of, “The show must go on.” It’s fantastic because it enables us to pull off some of the most incredible feats of entertainment you can imagine.
There’s traditionally been that touring belief that if someone is sick or hurt, “Leave them, we’ll pick them up later.” Artists and crews go into that little bubble while on tour.
Yeah. I think that is more or less true to this day. It’s not that the workforce out there is attempting to cause injury or looking past safety. It’s just that our focus traditionally has been on getting the show onstage. And it has not traditionally been about safety oversight. That’s been alright until now. How many more lives, and how much more bloodshed do we need to make the message stick to change the culture?
Decades ago, arena or outdoors music shows likely included a few speakers above the audience or bands playing through house systems. Today, touring acts are traveling with multiple truckloads of equipment, and crews are working high up in the air installing complex technology equipment.
Yeah, the complexity of the shows has obviously increased over the years if you benchmark back to the Beatles at Shea Stadium on a small stage. Here we are in this day and age where almost anything is possible with robotics and any number of special effects now. Still, the working environment is the guy, who is flying X artists over the stage, may also be the same guy who got up at 7 A.M. and rigged, loaded in, then worked all afternoon, grabbed a 15 minute lunch break, and then went back to work. The next thing that you know is that, without a nap or any sleep, he’s controlling the artists while they are flying over the stage.
At the same time the live music sector is in competition with other forms of entertainment—games, film, film, and theater—to provide eye candy.
That’s a philosophical argument. Another side to that is the more stuff that shows up for a show, the less likely the talent onstage might be.
In the ‘80s live music shows tried to match an artist’s video. Over time, productions got more elaborate paced by the likes of Pink Floyd, the Rolling Stones, Madonna, U2, Lady Gaga, and others. The stage act is entertainment. It always has been. It’s not the entertainment of one artist, one microphone anymore.
No question. And we have to keep it different, keep it changing and evolving or nobody is going to buy tickets. If the show was the same for every artist who cares? At the same time, I think that one of the things that we find is some of these mega-shows have nothing to do with the artist and has everything to do with the designer they’ve hired. One could argue whether the designer is designing for what is in the best interest of the artist or are they designing for what is in the best interest of their portfolio?
Some are arguing, “This is going to be bigger than the Rolling Stones or U2 or Madonna.”
There’s no question that there is an ego thing driving it as well. That’s okay. That’s what keeps it interesting. That kind of ego competition is healthy. It drives innovation. It drives variety. The industry needs that. We are blending all manner of entertainment. You just cannot narrow it down to live music entertainment. You go to any festival worth its salt and there’s going to be a food event. There’s going to be a ride event. There’s going to be some “dry” (non-musical) entertainment. Some talking heads. We have all become one amalgam of escapism for those who need it.
At the same time as the technology evolved those involved in live events have needed to be more skilled.
Well, I would argue that the innovation that is driving the new frontier in our business is being done by some of the best in the business. I am confident that when it (effect equipment) is manufactured, when it’s daydreamed, and when it’s brought from paper to realization, those who are manufacturing it have the desire for it to never fail. And I am also confident that when it gets handed off to whoever is going to execute X effect, they won’t have a desire for it to fail.
We have survived and thrived for decades without a safety first mindset. Our mindset is “the show must go on” and the attitude, “It worked last night 100%, awesome.”
What the ESA is a proponent of and for is to embed the safety element as well. It’s okay to say, “no.” It’s okay to say “That bulb doesn’t look right. That weld doesn’t look right. Hold on a second.” There have been artists or artist managers on the road that have insisted that every effect works every night 100% or “I’m not paying for it. What’s the point of having it out here?” That mentality causes those who operate these things, or who assemble these things, to maybe look past safety for fear of their jobs.
We are saying, “Let’s back up for a second. Let’s incorporate the safety planning, the risk assessment, the message statement from the word go. Let’s just have it be part of the day. It doesn’t cost any more money. It doesn’t take any more time. It is simply smart business.” We are one of the last industries, we are one of the last frontiers, if you will, to not really to have embraced safety as part of our culture.
We see the danger of, perhaps, not embracing safety fully with the recent spate of amusement park incidents. Unless you really pay attention to all the moving parts of equipment, you could have problems.
No question. In the case of amusement parks, that is largely itinerant labor. If they have a seasonal territory then they are operational for three or four months of the year. Manufacturers continue to try to make the equipment fail safe so the level of competency of the person operating it can be less and less because it’s hard to find competent people who know how to look at mechanical issues, who are able to do a morning mechanical inspection.
At any musical event or on any music tour, there’s a wear and tear on equipment. It has to be continually checked.
I agree with you that when we push the envelope of special effects that we also have to push the envelope of the competency of the people who are operating it. And we do that. Still, I don’t think that the problems that we see are really central to special effects, or to the application of special effect, and the use of special effects. The number of incidents that make the news relating to special effects is insignificant in my opinion.
Has increased technological innovation forced you as a production manager to further educate yourself on the dangers involved with productions?
That’s really where the ESA comes into this story. In that the (live music) industry has not set any kind of prior entry. You can have any job on the road with any size artist, from the lowest to the biggest, and nobody is going to ask you for a single credential of any kind let alone safety. They would have gotten there because of their reputation or because their best friend is the DJ at the club last night who somehow got a television commercial, and is now playing to 50,000 people across the world, and they knew a friend in a bar.
All of a sudden, they are the adult in charge with the duty of care for an audience of 50,000 people. They have not had the opportunity to groom their instinctual knowledge of safety which is what we count on right now. Veteran production managers like Charlie Hernandez and Mark Spring have built an instinctual awareness of safety over decades of experience. We count on those guys’ instinctive knowledge to know when something isn’t right.
But still, nobody has said that there should be a barrier to (crew) entry. Nobody has said, “You really ought to have a safety rigging course or have a scaffolding safety course if you are going to be the adult in charge.” Those new to the role don't have the advantage of experience, making them more vulnerable to risk. The ESA is working diligently to create learning opportunities to address this.
I’m surprised there aren’t schools centered on safety issues at live events.
The ESA is actively working on these solutions. There are a multitude of courses that are comparable, but the nuts and bolts of doing production every day don’t actually correlate much to the school of event producers or any other traditional schooling that is available right now with the exception of what I have seen at Full Sail University. There may be others that I’m not aware of.
Right now, there is a shortage of competent individuals to run big shows or elements of big shows. Part of what we are seeing is that everybody comes out school wanting to be at the top of the food chain. Nobody wants to be the guy or the girl in the trenches. What we need is competency in the trenches as well as at the top of the food chain.
Security at events is often little more than personnel with T-shirts. Many acts today are demanding more police at their shows.
Well, that is also an element of what the ESA is tracking. In England, for example, you don’t get to be a bouncer without having taken a certified course. What is being trained into their ushers, and their “yellow shirts” (security staff) for the lack of a better description, and mandated before they get into the field, is crowd management, how to deal with crowd reaction, how to speak to crowds, how to implement memory in folks, and how to activate particular (security) activation systems. Things of that nature. In England, which we joking refer to as “Safety Island”--that is not far from the fact--they are really focusing a lot on real training, and real competency levels before folks get into the (security) field. That’s a lot of what the ESA is modeling after.
Through the years you have hired crew members. Other than expertise and personality, what qualities do you look for?
I think that the world is complex enough without having people who are self-absorbed or driven by their ego or live in a place of negativity. I look for competency, attitude, and enthusiasm for the work. If you don’t have the requisite skills, I will give them to you because there is so much more to gain with competency, attitude, and enthusiasm than, “I am the best guitar tech you will ever meet. I teched for so and so.” That doesn’t buy cred in my life. You have to be enthusiastic about the work. One of the things that I teach is let your attitude be a reflection of how fortunate you are to be working in the entertainment business.
You also want people who are not going to endanger you in any way.
No question about it. There are cases where my three-step process isn’t necessarily going to solve the technical requirements. Maybe, that’s not good enough for a front of house engineer who has 20 years of skills. But what I have found is that my management style sometimes unlocks a better disposition in people who are so used to being treated poorly or have been without recognition because I am giving folks the requisite tools that they need, and the requisite attention that they need. Often, they modify their behavior and that helps me modify my behavior. When I see those kinds of wins, I use that tactic more frequently.
The fast life touring days, chronicled in Cameron Crowe’s 2000 road film “Almost Famous,” are long over.
I was mentored by first generation guys. My journey has had both sides of this coin. I don’t claim to be innocent. Taking dumb risks and partying too hard, I have certainly had that journey as well. That is what is great about the business. But we are absolutely in a new time where misogyny doesn’t go over as well. In fact, it shouldn’t be out there at all. It’s a multi-billion dollar a year though our GNP. We have to be more professional. We have to be less cabalistic with the way we do things. Even brands are less willing to put their names with artists that are problematic because they don’t want to tarnish their (brand) name. It is in everybody’s interest that we raise the bar and become more safety professional, more professional professional. That’s in all of our best interests.
Alcohol and drug abuse are often tolerated in the entertainment world. Band members and the crew may be surrounded by others enabling them in their addictions.
It is absolutely a truth of our business, but it’s a truth of most businesses. I’ve been very fortunate to work with my primary client Linkin Park over all these years. They understand addiction. Many of the folks in our camp have had a journey with addiction. What’s amazing about these guys is if someone in the family--in the crew--should fall down for a minute, as long as it’s not a repetitive occurrence, they (band members and management) are going to stand by that person. They will see that person gets help, and they will give that person the opportunity to come back on the team because they understand sometimes bad things happen to good people. You can’t have that activity happen time and time again but, over my 14 years journey with them, when somebody has fallen down, they have given them a second chance. That’s a real cool environment to work in, especially in our business.
I’m not claiming that Linkin Park is the only band that has that mentality, but they are the one that I know of that I have had a direct experience with. That appreciate the humanity of what we are doing and that understand at the end of the day we are not changing the orbit of the planet around the sun. We are providing entertainment escape. If somebody pushes themselves too far or pushes a moment too far, unless it’s catastrophic, you are going to get a second chance.
Still, whatever happens with any member of road crew on tour the show goes on.
There’s no doubt. And there’s no doubt that one of the attractions of our business is that there is no HR. There are very few places where your behavior is monitored. If you are under good leadership, hopefully, you are expected not to be a troublesome person. If you are under horrible leadership, you may turn to that kind of thing to get you through the day. The fact is that you are right. It happens all of the time.
Then there are rowdy fans displaying behavior that may become hazardous at any event.
It happens. I don’t know if you been to a Kenny Chesney party in the parking lot before he goes on, but there’s a great deal of beer consumption going on out there. While I don’t think you can focus on one particular type of music in drug use—and you have to consider alcohol a drug use as well—but I do think that there are issues at the EDM concerts that are drug-related. Folks don’t know what they are doing, and they (promoters) aren’t allowed to educate them about it which seems silly to me. It’s like making condoms and not being allowed to tell people what they are for.
[The complex political and economic web surrounding EDM events, especially in California, creates barriers between fans and potentially life-saving information. Sponsored by then-senator Joe Biden, the Illicit Drug Anti-Proliferation Act, commonly known as the RAVE (Reducing Americans’ Vulnerability to Ecstasy) Act went into effect in 2003 and, essentially, made it illegal for event promoters to offer educational materials or expert advice at festivals throughout the U.S.]
The Sugarland tragedy was first described as being weather-related in that the show should have been called off earlier...
There are two reports on the facts of what was going on there. There was the Thornton Tomasetti Forensic Engineering Report which studied the mechanical failure of the stage and the contributing factors to the mechanical failure of the stage. That’s nearly a 1,000 pages. Then there’s The Witt Associates Report of the human errors that occurred that day.
I would argue that it was not weather that caused people to die at that event. It was the lack of an actionable plan.
What came out of those reports was there was no cohesive plan for leadership. There was no cohesive, non-subjective plan for emergency actions. One person that was necessary to talk to another person couldn’t get to that person. There were discriminating motives to go onstage to get something done. All of those things are fixable. The weather isn’t fixable. The weather wasn’t the problem. Weather didn’t kill people. The lack of an actionable plan killed people, which gives me great hope in that’s something that we can fix.
Weather Decision Technologies, located next to NOAA’s severe weather research and forecasting experts in Norman, Oklahoma, partnered with the ESA to create the first ever weather decision and alerting matrix deployed specifically for outdoor events.
So what the ESA has done, in collaboration with Oklahoma University, the National Weather Service, and our friends at WDT (Weather Decision Technologies) is shepherd new tools, and greater access to expert information serving to aid in the decision-making process relating to weather threats. The hope is that we are creating terms for actions that are not subjective. So people will do the right thing without questioning whether they are doing the right thing.
How did you come to realize a strategic matrix was needed?
ESA wants to grow the awareness of the good work being done in many places. Things that we learned at the Academy For Venue Safety and Security dealt with risk assessing, and message statements, and things of that nature. I too was guilty of looking at my computer screen for the past 15 years trying to determine (weather) by looking at the red blob (to decide) when a storm was going to threaten a show site. Upon meeting Steve Adelman, he said, “Are you a meteorologist?” I said, “No.” He then said, “How do you think that is going to stand up in a court of law that you pretend to be a meteorologist, and you are making decisions on nothing more than looking at a red blob? How do you think that is going to hold up for you?”
He made me realize that it wasn’t going to go very well. So, realizing that I had been playing amateur meteorologist, and that was putting me and my family at risk, I had to find a different solution for to shelter my family from risk. I attended the Severe Weather Training Opportunity put on by IAVM (International Assn. of Venue Managers). In that training opportunity, I learned how radar isn’t always right. The red blobs aren’t fronts. Gust fronts don’t show up on radar necessarily. Unless you are a meteorologist, you can’t read all of the information that they are digesting to determine what conditions are going to be on your site.
While I was there, someone from Weather Decision Technologies said, “That’s what we do. We do it already for all of the transcontinental shipping. We do it for many of the global wind energy farms. We do it for oil derricks.” I was like, “If you are doing it for all of those people you can certainly do it for show people.”
Generally, how have event promoters and venue operators determined weather conditions for an event?
Historically, the local promoters and the venues rely on a meteorologist at the TV station or at the airport. Both have a different priority than the venue. The venue is going to get a call at some point, but they are not the first priority for the TV station meteorologist. And some promoters are using apps on their phone which is unacceptable as well because the majority of those apps are delayed by enough time that the incident is going to hit them long before it shows up on their app.
There are promoters who have access to Accu Weather or are utilizing good services and doing best practices with respect to weather. So the answer is yes they are out there. Are they dealing with more than two different providers? Probably so. There are all manners of weather action provisioning. Depending on what promoter or what event you talk to, and even within a large company. You may have a dozen different promoters doing a dozen different things, Many of them are probably reacting subjectively to the weather that they are being advised about.
What we have attempted to do through the ESA is to build information that is not subjective, and deliver that information to the industry. ESA's subject matter expert group on weather is led by Dr. Kevin Kloesel, Director, Oklahoma Climate Survey University Meteorologist, OU Office of Emergency Preparedness National Weather Center.
Even if you hash out plans, drill, and prepare for poor weather...
That is one of the drivers for the weather action matrix. Many in the industry think, “I don’t have to worry about lightening until the storm clouds are in front of me. Well, lightning can reach out as much as eight miles in front of an approaching storm. Eight miles. It can be bright and sunny and lightning is coming come out to sting you.
Would the 20-mile ring (of an impending storm) then be considered the alert ring and the eight-mile ring signify a time for action?
The fact is that just setting the rings is not good. There’s a third component to that in that is the speed of the approaching storm. So those rings are viable depending on the approach storm’s speed. They can’t be oversimplified to 20 and 8 miles. Where does the information come from? It comes from Ph.D. scientists who work at arguably the world’s most informed place when it comes to weather. Not roadies think they know what they are doing. We also extract information out of the OU (Oklahoma University) folks with respect what to do with pop-up tents. What to do with inflatables. What to with do with a 100-foot free-span tent. Where they actually experience these things every day.
What do you tell people on site at an outdoor event? Other than they should familiarize themselves with their surroundings; know where the exit and shelter areas are; know how to get back to their vehicle; and don’t be near temporary structures such as scaffolding.
When thunder roars, go indoors.
At the same time, promoters should make sure that they are not keeping the people who should be most aware of these plans, the fans, in the dark.
What they should be communicating to an audience member is something similar to a pre-flight safety check for flight attendants. Don’t forget to know what entrance you came in. How far away is your car? Is it 20 or 10 minutes or is it within walking distance? That sort of thing. In event of inclement weather, where there might be lighting or worse, they ask audience members to evacuate to safe shelter. In some cases, that safe shelter may be their car. They need to know how to get back there, and how long it’s going to take them. Inside their car in the middle of a field is a whole lot safe than standing in the middle of a field underneath a tree.
You have to be able to get to your car.
You have to get there. These all become components of an equation of evacuation of your weather decision matrix. First, you tell your audience, “Safety is our concern. It’s our priority. We are going to help you get to a safe place.”
Every promoter in the country times the audience exit every night—surely every venue manager does that. They know how long it takes an audience to get back to their cars. They are timing it on clear weather nights, and it’s safe to assume that it’s not going to take any longer in the face of foul weather. They then have the second part of the equation of when to evacuate their crowd.
Now, it’s about knowing how fast the storm is traveling, and when it will be over their site. That they know the ferocity of that storm. If they know that it is putting down lightening, and they know that it takes 40 minutes to move the audience out of the building and back to the parking lot, they have set their range rings according to the speed of the storm. According to the best brains in the business telling them what to do. Then it’s pretty safe to assume that they can make a weather action matrix that says, “If I have an impending storm, I have to make my decision at T-minutes 45 minutes. Period. No subjectivity. I have to make my decision at that time. So if I make my decision at T-minutes 45 minutes, and it takes 25 minutes to get my audience to their cars, I am going to be safe.
Meanwhile, production, road crew, and musicians are too often stranded on a site as a storm hits with little protection other than a trailer.
What the ESA is working on is such a difficult proposition because shows come in many forms. Some have buses, some don’t have buses. Some are outside next to stadiums, and some are outside and miles from anything. There is no one solution which is why we say, “Don’t take Jim Digby’s plan, and turn it into your yours. You have to have your own plan.”
Given the many variables at play at events, you can’t establish hard-and-fast rules.
This question was just raised at an event in Texas by a very respected production manager. He called me saying, “I’m a 12-minute walk from the arena. I’ve got 100 guys out here working on the stage, who all walked from the arena. They are telling me that the last time a storm came through, they were told to take shelter under the stage. I really don’t feel good about that.” I said, “I’m glad you don’t feel good about that because that’s a horrible idea. “All I can see is 100 twisted bodies under your stage.” If there’s a12 minute walk between you and a safe shelter then12 or 14 minutes gets built into your weather action evacuation plan.
Promoters may still be making tough decisions at a moment's notice.
It seems like such a complex decision-making matrix if you are making it up as the lightning is striking 10 miles away from you. It really is complex then. But if you think this through on a dry beautiful sunny day, when you aren’t under threat, and you rehearse it with your team, and you instill this mentality in your team that, “When I blow the air horn, I really mean it. Get in the bus, or get in the cafeteria, or get inside the arena.” It becomes really simple.
The problem right now is that we are in this gap from our watershed moment, if we refer to Indiana, that we’ve got this whole upper level of folks who say, “It’s been this way for 20 years. I don’t need to know what you are saying.” Then you have these young guys who are looking for information, and we have the cultural change that the ESA is trying to promulgate. Where right now we are just continually bombarding our peers with as much quality, competent, real, truthful, scientific information as we possibly can. Those who want to ingest it are free to ingest. Those who don’t, well I feel sorry for them if the crap hits the fan and they aren’t taking the best or the reasonable practices guide seriously.
A decade ago clubs became more aggressive about security--- adding metal detectors and wands, and hiring off-duty cops. But in recent years safety has largely slipped. Security too often comes down to a quick check. Given recent Florida club tragedies in Orlando and Fort Myers, it’s not unrealistic to suggest that clubs don’t seem as safe as they once were.
It isn’t just entertainment venues. It’s elementary schools. It’s shopping malls. Everywhere and anytime a lunatic has a grudge and gun they are going to take actions that are going to cause people to die. That’s the sad thing about America.
One of the chilling images from Orlando was a Snapchat video that 25-year-old Amanda Alvear (who was killed in the attack) posted showing the first few seconds of the shooting. The video shows a club undisturbed in the first few moments of the attack. As shots rang out, the music continued to play and the club lights continued to flash their usual rhythm on the dance floor. Do you keep the lights on or off?
There is unequivocal proof that the lights go on, the sound comes off. In fact, it’s law. In an event of an emergency, all lighting must be turned on, and all sound must be turned off. We talked to the joint terrorism force, the FBI, and several others. I don’t care what I think is the right thing to do in event of an active shooter in the building, I want to know what the people coming in to rescue me want. They all want the lights on, and all the sound off so they can navigate the venue. An indiscriminate shooter isn’t going to be any more or less successful in a fully-lit building. Rescuers will be more successful.
Do you arm the staff of the club or road crew?
Hell no. So now I’ve got trained rescuers coming into the venue, and they are looking for terrorists, and I have a bunch of roadies or cub scouts in black T-shirts wielding guns around. Who do you think is getting shot? We are not in the business of counter-terrorism. We are freaking production. It’s not our job. And putting guns in the hands of folks who are not trained to do that sort of thing in a venue in which they might have only seen that day for the first time in a dark environment; when people start screaming, and there’s panic afoot, are you sure you know how you are going to react when something like that hits the fan? I think about this stuff all of the time, and I’m not sure how I’m going to react when the shit hits the fan.
I think that the facts substantiate the idea that amateurs shouldn’t be armed in such a situation. An amateur is not going to resolve that situation. Amateurs become targets for those who may be coming to rescue them.
Where are you from?
Born in San Jose, California, and I grew up out in the suburbs of Philadelphia.
Did you see a lot of music shows growing up?
I didn’t see a lot of shows. I have never been one that has been so enamored with a band that I collected things. I have almost always known that my forté was behind the scenes which is a plus because it doesn’t make me a struggling, conflicted musician. I am a team leader and I produce shows. That’s all I ever want to be.
I assume that you had the safety issues covered at the Mayday celebration in Grade 5 when you were allowed to be the tech guy.
(Laughing) I had nothing covered. I was young and excited. I finally found a teacher that inspired me, and the rest is history. If it wasn’t for her I don’t think I would be here at all. Until that point, there was not much classical learning that really turned me on.
Not a good student?
I wasn’t. I was reading, however. At home, I was taking apart electronic devices. I had an older brother who would let me tinker on engines and things of that nature when he was tinkering. And I was able to read instructions. I had some interest in schematic diagrams. Classical book reading was a turn-off to me. It wasn’t until fifth grade that—my fourth-year teacher had said, “Oh, he can’t read”—my fifth-grade teacher said, “He just needs the right reading material.” Then I was off to the races.
Did you attend university?
I did for a minute. I went to Penn State Lima campus for a minute (two semesters) going in as a business major But college didn’t take. Then I went to an electronics college, and that took. I then went to a film school in Florida on a special program that Disney, Universal and the University of Miami were working on together. I wanted to go into the film business, but I realized that the only people having fun in the film business were the director, the first camera, and the editor. Everybody else was itinerant labor. I was only there for a couple of semesters, and then I was on my way to the next thing.
Larry LeBlanc is widely recognized as one of the leading music industry journalists in the world. Before joining CelebrityAccess in 2008 as senior editor, he was the Canadian bureau chief of Billboard from 1991-2007 and Canadian editor of Record World from 1970-89. He was also a co-founder of the late Canadian music trade, The Record.
He has been quoted on music industry issues in hundreds of publications including Time, Forbes, and the London Times. He is co-author of the book “Music From Far And Wide.”
Larry is the recipient of the 2013 Walt Grealis Special Achievement Award, recognizing individuals who have made an impact on the Canadian music industry. He is a board member of the Mariposa Folk Festival in Orillia, Ontario, and a consultant to the National Music Centre in Calgary, Alberta.
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