What the Astroworld tragedy means for concert and festival security, local experts weigh in

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The crowd watches as Travis Scott performs at Astroworld Festival at NRG park on Friday, Nov. 5, 2021 in Houston. Several people died and numerous others were injured in what officials described as a surge of the crowd at the music festival while Scott was performing. Officials declared a “mass casualty incident” just after 9 p.m. Friday during the festival where an estimated 50,000 people were in attendance, Houston Fire Chief Samuel Peña told reporters at a news conference. (Jamaal Ellis/Houston Chronicle via AP)

HOUSTON (ABC 4) – In 2017, 60 people were killed when a shooter opened fire on the crowd at the Route 91 Harvest music festival in Las Vegas. In 2016, three attendees of California’s HARD Summer Music Festival passed away due to MDMA overdoses. And in 2003, 100 people were killed when a fire engulfed The Station nightclub in Rhode Island.

In the wake of the eight tragic deaths at Travis Scott’s Astroworld festival on the evening of November 5, 2021, music and live events industry professionals, including those who put on some of Utah’s most popular concerts, are reckoning with an increased scrutiny on audience safety.

Salt Lake City is home to a variety of festivals and concerts, ranging from smaller, local shows, to national tours from big name artists, to multi-day festivals and concert series. Each year, the popular Twilight Concert Series pulls in about 5,000 attendees per show. And although 5,000 fans is a far cry from the 50,000 that attended Scott’s festival, keeping crowds safe always presents a challenge.

At Astroworld, the crowd reportedly surged forward in anticipation of Scott’s stage entrance, trapping fans who were positioned close to the stage and making it difficult for them to breathe and keep their footing. Eyewitness statements report an impenetrable crowd, with multiple attendees pulled under the wave of people and screams silenced by the blaring music.  

Although the festival is still under investigation, the music community is demanding answers from Scott and the festival’s organizers regarding the failure of security measures and the prevention of this tragedy.

In order to hold a concert, festival, or other mass gathering, a detailed security plan must be completed and approved by both the fire marshal and local law enforcement, says Roderick Payne, president and owner of Fastguard Security, a nationwide security company specializing in concerts and music festivals. Within the safety plan, precautions must be made for a mass casualty event, such as an active shooter or a crowd surge.

“Because of the amount of people, life safety always the biggest concern,” says Payne.

Although Astroworld’s safety plan was cleared by all required parties, concertgoers have reported various instances of security negligence prior to the deadly crowd surge.

Videos circulating on social media showed attendees storming the security gates at the festival’s entrance, where guards appeared to be unable to contain the massive crowd force.

“From the start, that gate – which from what I can tell only had one or two people at it – shows a lack of resources,” said security consultant and owner of Utah-based Kane Security, Shawn Kane. “The entrance should have been secured differently, based on the number of people standing at the gate, so that it couldn’t be pushed through initially.”

According to Kane, understaffing may have contributed to the tragedy that occurred. The event reportedly had 505 security guards on site, which he says is an inadequate number for 50,000 people, especially at a high profile and high energy event such as a Travis Scott concert.

“Not that tragedy can’t strike anywhere, but Travis Scott concerts can get wild. It’s not a bad wild; people like to have fun,” Kane says. “Knowing that prior to, in your planning and preparation, ensure your safety and security plan is solid to handle every contingency efficiently and quickly.”

Critics on social media are also questioning the amount of time it took to shut the event down. Videos from the festival show Scott continuing to perform as fans were passing out in the crowd.  

Will Sartain, owner of event production company S&S Presents, says that when a dangerous situation arises, events should be shut down as soon as possible.

“The concert was continuing for 30 minutes while these tramplings were happening. They were not prepared for what needed to happen in case of emergency. Within two minutes, the concert should have stopped,” Sartain, who co-produces Salt Lake City’s Twilight Concert Series says.  “At the Twilight Concert Series, we are constantly monitoring in case we need to evacuate the venue. We have evacuated our venues [in the past]. You don’t take things for granted. This is people’s lives.”

Following The Station nightclub fire, fire code protections in nightclubs were increased and the governor of Rhode Island placed a moratorium on pyrotechnics displays in venues with a less than 300 person capacity. Policies are changing to reflect the best harm reduction techniques in response to drug related deaths at music festivals. And the Las Vegas shooting brought the threat of gun violence to the forefront of event organizer’s minds, necessitating safety plans for such events.  

“We have tourniquets at all of our venues because of Las Vegas,” says Sartain. “That’s just the reality now. I think [Astroworld] will leave a lasting impact on how people perceive the reality of an event this size.”

Although it shouldn’t take a tragedy to reexamine audience safety, the events at Astroworld are sure to reverberate in the concert industry for years to come.

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