Harmony watchword at concerts

County police, fire and rescue employees work together for safety at Merriweather events

July 25, 2008|By Tyeesha Dixon | Tyeesha Dixon,Sun Reporter

Ever wonder what goes into preparing security for a big show at Merriweather Post Pavilion?

According to police and fire officials, it takes a good four to six weeks of coordination and teamwork to make a show safe and successful.

For several years, the Howard County police and fire departments have employed a "unified command system" to prepare for Merriweather Post events, creating a task force of employees from both departments and Merriweather.

Instead of each agency working separately, they coordinate with Merriweather weeks in advance to come up with a plan, sharing resources and creating more efficient ways to anticipate emergencies.

For last week's Warped Tour, a nationwide tour that includes the bands Gym Class Heroes and Reel Big Fish, both departments created an "incident action plan" about a month and a half ago. The plan is a formal document that "spells out what each and every person would be doing and what resources are available," said Deputy Chief for Emergency Medical Services John Butler.

"The system of unified command has been around for some time now," Butler said. "It was founded because of wildfires in the West and some Florida incidents that crossed multiple jurisdictions and agencies.

"In the last few years, we've been taking great strides in ensuring that agencies share resources."

Police and fire and rescue employees set up a mobile command unit on the outskirts of the pavilion before each show. Depending on the crowd, up to 50 or so people from each department could be on duty.

Having the unit close by with medical supplies and computer equipment allows the departments to respond much more quickly when emergencies occur, Butler said. The mobile command unit also has telecommunications equipment and wireless Internet access.

"Historically, the police are working in a police bubble, and fire and rescue [workers] are working in their bubble," Butler said. "Sometimes though, because we're not talking ... we don't know the other guys' strengths or weaknesses."

Butler said that although officials can't prevent accidents or anticipate how many they will come across, by being prepared they can effectively and quickly respond, perhaps avoiding more serious events. During the Warped Tour, Butler said, the Department of Fire and Rescue Services had about 150 contacts, which can mean anything from providing a bandage to taking someone to the hospital.

Although many of the contacts were heat-related, he said, only one person needed significant medical treatment that required him to be taken to the hospital. About 16,000 people bought tickets to that concert, said Jean Parker, Merriweather's general manager.

"Instead of having to run calls back and forth, we're right there, and we can help people assist with whatever comes up," Butler said. "The best way to ensure that we're on the same sheet of music is by planning and exercising together so when we have events, we're pretty well prepared for a large influx of people coming into the county."

Another advantage of the unified system is future emergency preparedness, said Police Chief William J. McMahon.

"In the wake of 9/11, here in Howard County we really started in this incident command structure," McMahon said. "It also helps us kind of refine our plans for unexpected things that might pop up, be it natural or manmade disasters."

Most important, "we just have a much more efficient and effective response," McMahon said.

"Now, we use common terminology for the different gates and parking lots," he added.

Parker said the system is effective in controlling alcohol consumption.

"They're always on top of how many alcoholic drinks can be served to a person," she said. "It's a really good formula for making sure everybody's safe when they leave."

Parker said that even smaller events require careful planning with police and fire officials.

"We have a very open dialogue with each of those departments," she said. "We always plan for the worst but hope for the best."

The joint task force will soon begin planning for Sunday in the Country, a country music festival scheduled for September. Parker said that show is expected to sell out.

tyeesha.dixon@baltsun.com

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