Wednesday, August 4, 2004

Festival seating still too risky


Cincinnati City Council's midsummer dash to repeal its "festival" seating ban should not blur lessons learned from the Who concert crowd crush that killed 11 people on Dec. 3, 1979 outside what is now U.S. Bank Arena.

Council's Law and Public Safety Committee heard the issue Tuesday and council could vote today. Cincinnati police and fire officials recommend repeal. The new crowd-control plan would adopt national safety standards, including the National Fire Protection Association's Life Safety Code. But the real test will come over time and hinge on whether future officials enforce the code and insist on special training to handle the latest threats from concert crowds.

"We're a lot smarter than we were back in '79," Fire Chief Robert Wright said. Famous last words? What special training or experience makes us "a lot smarter?" Cincinnati's ban on open, unreserved seating has shielded us from handling the most dangerous challenges at live concerts. That sedate audience at Bruce Springsteen's Nov. 12, 2002, concert was no test.

Advocates of repealing the ban make much the same arguments used before the Who concert deaths. Cincinnati needs to be more competitive. We are told Cincinnati is the only city in the top 50 still enforcing a ban, and top acts bypass us.

Maj. Dale Menkhaus of Hamilton County's Sheriff's Office thinks repeal is a mistake. "It's still all about money," said Menkhaus, who was the police lieutenant in charge of special operations the night of the Who concert. Promoters and venue operators may think they don't need as many ushers and security people for a general-admission crowd, but if the Life Safety Code is interpreted as it should be, it may require more ushers and security. The proposed law would require applicants to file a written safety plan for each event, sell tickets in advance, open doors two hours before start time and make fans with floor tickets wear identifying wrist bands. The code now applies to crowds of 250 or more. Menkhaus asks how we would handle festival seating at the stadiums. "I've seen people jump over walls," he said.

We need to understand we may be transferring risk from outside to inside venues. One risk is a mad dash to get near the stage. Others are "moshing" or "stage diving." Fire officials will face a whole new set of discretionary decisions on what to allow.

Paul Wertheimer of Crowd Management Strategies believes festival seating could be done safely, but only if city officials do not let promoters or venue operators off the hook. Will the city impose stiff penalties for violations? Will oversight be ongoing? One suggestion Wertheimer makes is a memorial to the Who concert dead so no one forgets. Cities such as West Warwick, R.I., site of the 100-death nightclub fire Feb. 20, 2003, are building memorials.

In the dash to become more "competitive," leaders here need to first win the safety race to keep ahead of the concert industry's latest threats from injuries, deaths and lawsuits.

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