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April 23, 2012

State steps up efforts on stage safety at fairs and festivals

INDIANAPOLIS — Fair and festival organizers throughout the state should expect more scrutiny of their outdoor entertainment venues this summer, even before new emergency stage regulations kick in.

Indiana Gov. Mitch Daniels said Monday he’s instructed the state fire marshal’s office to reach out to event organizers in every county in Indiana to make sure they’re meeting current stage safety rules and preparing for new ones soon to come.

“You won’t be putting up anything bigger than a pup tent without somebody coming by to take a look at it,” Daniels said.

He made the comment after meeting with an industry group, the Event Safety Alliance, that’s working on creating national safety standards for outdoor concert venues. The Alliance was created in the wake of last summer’s fatal Indiana State Fair stage collapse and three similar events worldwide that resulted in death and injury.

Alliance members were in Indianapolis on Monday to meet with state regulators and some state lawmakers who are working on new rules to cover outdoor concert venues in Indiana.

“Within the space of less than a month last summer there were four tragedies,” Daniels said. “It is obvious this is truly a global problem that demands global standards.”

But Daniels also told the industry group that he wasn’t going to wait for them to adopt what would be voluntary guidelines for stage safety.

He said new emergency rules that cover the kind of overhead stage rigging that collapsed at the State Fair last August during a wind storm, killing seven and injuring dozens more, would be in place by early May. More permanent regulations are expected to be put into place after a legislative study committee looks at the safety issue this summer.

In comments to reporters, Daniels said county fair and festival officials around the state have expressed concern that any new regulations, including those that require event organizers to pay an engineer to design and approve temporary stage rigging, may be too costly. State-ordered investigations of the State Fair stage collapse found the overhead rigging was structurally unsound and “grossly inadequate” to withstand high winds.

Daniels said he understood those concerns, but said safety concerns need to come before cost issues. “Public safety trumps everything,” Daniels said.

There’s some concern that safety regulations currently in place aren’t being followed. Joe Wainscott, director of the state Department of Homeland Security, said some fair and festival organizers have failed to obtain the required “amusement and entertainment permit” that triggers an inspection of the event venue by the state fire marshal’s office.

Wainscott said some fair and festival organizers may not know they need such a permit. He said others may be intentionally skirting the law.

Wainscott said Homeland Security staff is contacting officials in every county in Indiana to inform them of the current law and the new requirements that will likely go into effect in early May. He said his staff is working with fair and festival associations in the state, as well as county and city officials.

“It’s more educational than punitive at this point,” Wainscott said. “We want people to be safe.”

State Rep. Randy Frye, a Republican from Greensburg and retired firefighter who co-sponsored the legislation that triggered the new stage safety rules, said the state may need to go beyond just inspecting stage rigging. He said event organizers for venues large and small need to have emergency evacuation plans in place that spell out who is responsible for making safety decisions.

State-ordered investigations of the State Fair stage collapse found there was no clear line of authority for executing an evacuation plan.

“If there’s anything good that can come out of that tragedy, it’ll be safety standards that everyone knows and will follow,” Frye said.

Frye and State Sen. Tim Lanane, a Democrat from Anderson who authored the stage-safety legislation, met with members of the Event Safety Alliance on Monday. Its members are pushing the entertainment industry to adopt safety guidelines already in place in England and some European countries.

The guide emphasizes safety planning and better communication among those responsible for putting on concerts.

“Make no mistake, this is the single most important issue facing our industry,” said Jim Digby, production manager for the band Linkin Park and an Alliance co-founder.

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