Drones and more armed security will be employed at the Coachella Valley Music and Arts Festival to help to prevent the kind of horrific attack that left 58 people dead at a Las Vegas music festival in in October.
Goldenvoice president and CEO Paul Tollett says a planned increase in armed security is proportionate with the festival’s growth and changes in society.
“It’s just a part of safety,” he said in an interview last month on the music festival grounds. “There are more people at the show, so, it’s a higher profile.”
Roughly 250,000 people are expected at the festival April 13-15 and April 20-22 at two Indio polo clubs, and Indio police say they can assure those fans, and their parents, that a nationwide team of law enforcement and security personnel are planning for every contingency learned from previous catastrophes.
“Our number one priority is public safety,” said public information officer Sgt. Dan Marshall. “We want people to know that they’re safe. We want people to know that we are well planned.”
Drones have been called a “radical” new security implementation. Marshall said their use is an experiment. Goldenvoice has contracted with a licensed, certified drone service to be put at the disposal of the Indio police. The department will use it to view traffic problems and “issues that pop up." But those issues are undetermined.
“We don’t know if this is the type of event that lends itself to (drones),” said Marshall. “We have to follow all rules. We can’t over-fly cars, we can’t over-fly crowds, we can’t do any of that stuff unless we deem that it’s a public safety issue. Then we could make that happen."
Marshall, like Tollett, declined to reveal details of the Coachella security plan. But, Marshall said most health and security measures are more subtle than drones and armed guards.
The plan to move the large, electronic music-filled Sahara tent west, away from the mid-size Mojave and Gobi tents, is significant, Marshall said, because it will lighten human traffic patterns. Security people look at whether a pass-through area is too narrow, causing congestion that increases stress, or too broad, which could cause the festival to lose space on another congested field at the Empire and Eldorado polo clubs.
Security planning has been a priority since the festival’s launch in 1999, Tollett said. But more entities are now involved in the planning.
Following the shooting at the Route 91 Harvest Music festival in Las Vegas, plus mass killings in the past two years at nightclubs in Miami and Manchester, England, and the Bataclan Theatre in Paris, France, more than 1,000 live event producers gathered for an industry conference at the Las Vegas Mandalay Bay Resort and Casino, where a man had fired on Route 91 festival-goers from the 32nd floor just two months earlier.
Police, fire, federal Homeland Security officials, private security officials and even the head of customer safety for the Las Vegas Conventions and Visitors Authority spoke at the XLIVE conference on issues ranging from training to detect improvised explosive devices to a federal program that encourages promoters to share proprietary information with security partners by protecting them from civil liability and Freedom of Information Act requests.
The overriding message of a seminar and workshop on safety and security was, “The importance of planning can’t be overstated.”
Ashour Ebrahim, director of health and safety for AEG Presents, Goldenvoice’s partner in Coachella and many other music festivals across the country, said in an interview at the XLIVE conference he works with multiple law enforcement and security officials to create unique security plans for each festival.
“It takes all security professionals to work together with federal, state and local partners, private sector security companies," he said. "How are we going to try to prevent these (mass shooting) events from happening? That takes a lot of proper planning in order to see what the needs are.”
Some of the more visible measures the AEG and Goldenvoice security teams have implemented are walking metal detectors, or magnetometers, which measure changes in the magnetic field, and dog patrols.
“If you’ve been to Coachella, you see the police presence in trying to guide the traffic,” said Ebrahim, a former FBI official who had his own security firm before joining AEG. “If they’re standing in our queues, they see our security personnel. We have dog patrols, and those are tangible things that people can actually see. Granted, some people may feel, why do I have to have my bags searched? Well, it’s exactly for that reason. It’s a tangible approach. We’re not trying to inconvenience you, we’re trying to protect everyone else, including yourself.”
The way Coachella officials respond to emergency incidents is determined by a federal protocol for private and public sector agencies established after 9/11. President George W. Bush issued a Homeland Security Presidential Directive to establish a National Incident Management System, which led to the creation of a State Emergency Management System, known collectively NIMS SEMS.
In layman’s language, it ensures that police can talk to fire personnel, fire can talk to the ambulance operators, and the ambulances can talk to the police.
“When you get at that level of the person who’s actually trying to orchestrate and bring some calm and some order to a chaotic situation,” said Marshall, “communication among the first responders is paramount. That lesson was learned at 9/11, where even different fire departments could not talk to each other.”
Goldenvoice takes that communication protocol to another level: enabling first responders to communicate with their private security personnel.
“Something that makes this concert so amazing is that the promoter, Goldenvoice, has taken the time to invest that training to their staff,” said Marshall. “Law enforcement trains all their sworn officers in the basics of NIMS SEMS. As you move up in rank and positions of responsibility, you’re trained deeper in the operations of NIMS and SEMS, to where you are a director of a department or a commander.
“We operate under that purview with the first responders – police, fire, and AMR (American Medical Response). So, they’re part of the incident command. You have those three incident commanders in the same room and they all know how it’s supposed to run. You get that communication so you can get the resources you need to help people (and) contain the situation when you have an incident."
The type of incident determines whether law enforcement, fire or AMR should be the main incident commander under the NIMS SEMS protocol. But, until a law has been broken, the Goldenvoice security team is in charge of protection. The AEG team works in concert with them.
“Law enforcement is there to help us, support us," Ebrahim said. "God forbids something happens, that’s when law enforcement will take over and we, as a private sector entity, will follow their instructions. Whether they’re state and local cops or whether the FBI comes in if it’s an act of terrorism, then we simply do whatever they tell us. If there’s nothing going on, we’re just running a show. They’re sitting in our command posts. If they see something they don’t like, they tell us, ‘Hey, can you put more guards over here?’ If we see something we don’t like, we tell them, ‘Hey, can you send a couple uniformed personnel to deal with this?’ It’s a partnership.”
The determination of whether an incident is an act of terrorism generally occurs after the incident has occurred, Marshall said. Then local law enforcement assists the FBI and Homeland Security. Before that, they're there to assist the Indio Police Department.
Marshall said public safety is their No. 1 priority, but Ebrahim said the private sector security doesn’t want the fans to have to be aware of that.
“People need to know we’re doing everything possible to make them safe,” he said. “So, as soon as they walk into any of our festivals, the only thing they want to consider is, ‘Where am I eating? Which act am I seeing?’ We want them to have a heck of a time and go back (on) social media, ‘Best time ever. I’m going to be going to Coachella for the next 20 years.’ That’s what I worry about. The fan experience. I don’t want them to think about security.”
The Indio Police is also using social media as a community tool. It was one of 15 law enforcement agencies in the U.S. selected to participate in a 21st Century Policing Initiative created by President Obama. Marshall was named head of the Indio Police Social Media Team last fall. The Indio Police now has more than 1,000 Twitter followers and 1,000 Instagram followers, and it reaches 8,000 households via Nextdoor.com.
Ebrahim said spending money on expensive technology isn’t always as important as good customer relations.
“We hire private security vendors and they do the vetting and validation of their guards, and they have to understand, we don’t want a bouncer mentality,” he said. “This is a guest experience and we as security, health and safety are all about that guest experience. We’d much rather say, ‘How can we help you?’ than ‘Why are you doing X, Y and Z?’ A smile on their face goes a long way. For us, our guest experience is our number one priority because we want them coming back and having a good time."
Tollett said planning is the number one thing a festival promoter can do to prevent mass violence. But he also believes in using technology to assist law enforcement. Festival-goers must wear wristbands that contain chips that help count the number of festival-goers and identify when they come in and out of different parts of the fields.
“Because of the wristband thing, we have a system,” said Tollett. “We want to know who’s here. Everyone’s got documentation on a wristband. So, we know when they come in.”