Festival Searching and Security

In May 2018, two lives were tragically lost after attending a UK music festival. A total of fifteen people reportedly received treatment at the local hospital with event organisers issuing a “harm prevention alert” to warn about a “dangerous high – strength or bad batch substance on site”.

This article does not serve to cast blame or accuse any individual or organisation, but rather to provide a perspective on search regimes and preventative measures based on my own experience of events during three decades of senior security and crowd safety roles, both nationally and internationally.

As a father myself, I cant imagine how the parents of Georgia Jones and Tommy Cowan felt, feel and will feel, every single day of their lives, about their children who left home healthy and never returned. Then of course, there are the other relatives, siblings, aunties, uncles and of course, the close friends and casual acquaintances’.

Outside of the family and friends, there are the event organisers, the event licensee, the security contractor and all other contractors involved with the event. Moving further afield, every other music festival organiser, promoter, security contractors, licensees and local authorities up and down the UK and indeed, across the rest of the world.

I was Security Director of over 500 staff at another UK music festival over the same bank holiday weekend as these people lost their life’s and we felt the impact immediately. Management and Police were eager to ensure that we were all aware of what had happened and share the urgent, national events intelligence unit update.

No one involved with the event industry wants a death at their event and I would extend this viewpoint to say that no one in the event industry wants to hear of a death at any event. The impact is felt and is a chilling reminder that death can accompany the use of drugs.

I was at the Roskilde Festival back in 2000, a few hours after the death of 9 people. I was providing the crowd safety reasons as to why the band Oasis wouldn’t be performing. Simply put, it was not clear at that stage, what had caused the loss of 9 peoples lives the previous night, but what was clear, was the absolute silence backstage of the Orange stage, the sombre feeling of death at the shrine in front of the stage, the grief across the faces of hundreds of music fans and the absolute devastation and sheer shock across the faces of the organisers. I walked onto the stage and viewed the old wooden barrier system, the football terrace type barriers in the audience section at the front of the stage and photographed priests grasping Holy Bibles to go on stage and speak to the crowd who appeared in need of help from a higher level.

I then headed backstage to a portakabin to join the event organisers and Chief of Police who were seeking my approval for Oasis to perform. I fully understood the organisers views, but my role and responsibility was to the band, their management and the safety of their fans and others in attendance at Oasis s performances. The answer was an immediate No and the reasons were clear. Did they know what was the root cause of the deaths?

The answer was No and the rest is history as they say. Years later, I toured with Pearl Jams Tour Mgr, who was on the Red Hot Chilli Peppers tour as the tour accountant. He shared with me his vivid recollection over a bottle of red wine and accompanied by eyes full of tears and a voice that quivered remembering the horror.

This experience has stayed with me when planning and preparing for events worldwide. I am aware that deaths happen. I’ve witnessed the fallout, and am familiar with the consequences. The risk is real and the threat is always there. In the UK we have the Licensing Objectives’ which the event organiser must satisfy, by providing a robust event safety management plan and then there is a raft of Health and Safety and Fire Safety legislation to adhere to.

Running parallel to this, we have a system in the UK where security staff have to be licensed to work in what is considered as non stewarding front line roles. This, in theory, is an ideological answer, but in practical terms, dilutes the availability of personnel, particularly when the SIA license renewals have dropped significantly causing a glut in the retention of staff. The number of events competing alongside each other drains the meagre availability of quality staff.

The fact that an individual has a security license does not mean that the individual has the profile to work at a certain type of event and deter/prevent crime or has the capacity/desire to intervene in a situation that could mean the difference between someone having a good time and someone ending up in hospital. These people are becoming few and a rare commodity.

Then there is the ever-competitive market space where the natural progression of sub contractors striving to become main contractors by undercutting their former employers and other rivals, to win the bid and put a smile on the face of those organisers focused solely on the bottom line.

And of course, all security staff brochures tell the reader that ALL their staff are fully trained in house, and that their company are the leaders in their field, yet none state that they have to sub contract extensively to fill the demand bestowed upon them

Staffing isn’t a major concern nowadays, yet quality staffing is. It is no longer viable to simply allot security numbers and/or a dot plan. There now has to be recognition of the quality of staff that may or may not turn up, the shortfalls in staff that may not arrive and how this shortfall will impact the event capacity to operate safely for the numbers attending.

The planning and build phases of the event are critical to the security success as this is when the security and safety policies and cultures are delivered. Drugs are everywhere in society and the sooner people recognise this the better for everyone. A music event attracts crowds, which in turn is a drug dealer’s paradise.

Drugs will enter the event in a variety of methods ranging from contractors, production crews, artistes and entourages, through to buried in advance, hidden in vehicles, thrown over a fence, on the person who jumped the fence, concealed in camping gear and even inserted in ones arse within a condom.

Then there is the pre-loading whereby the consumer ingests their drugs in advance of the search in fear of having their drugs taken off them and being refused entry. This is a growing problem and should also be considered in the planning phase.

Mitigation to prevent this can be in the form of a pre-event social media campaign, ticketing terms and conditions, passive and active security solutions ranging from fencing/lighting, cctv, drones, response teams, covert teams, amnesty bins, passive drug detection dogs, search and enhanced search areas, observation towers, contractors/traders/artistes, their entourages, vehicles and personnel searched and enough public entry lanes to prevent the queue building up so that the crowd aren’t static and becoming a public order issue or, a terrorist target.

More entry lanes equals more staff amounting to higher bills but reduces the risk. Private covert teams gathering and providing dynamic intelligence to event security, has proven to be a worthwhile commodity at events that I have been involved with in recent years and have prevented tens of thousands of pounds worth of drugs and weapons entering the site as well as identifying suspicious activity on the inside leading to large quantities of drugs being seized, arrests being made and people going home safely.

People go to events to be entertained and let their hair down. Drugs are a way of life for tens of thousands, if not hundreds of thousands of people. I firmly believe that each event should be assessed for its own individual threats, that can change at any point leading up to the event and also during the event. The organiser needs to be confident in the resources they have to address the significant and foreseeable risks. Those risks should be put together by people with extensive experience of similar events, scrutinised, challenged and revised where necessary, with control measures that are appropriate to reduce the likelihood of another catastrophe occurring.

Drugs being concealed in someone’s arse brings a whole new meaning to the phrase “Good Sh*t” and perhaps there’s a slogan in the making. I can’t see many drug dealers at festivals telling potential customers that the drugs they are about to purchase were inside their rectum for the previous hour or two, but perhaps if the organiser shared this in advance, along with other mitigation previously mentioned, it might get the message across better.