Who Is Inspecting Outdoor Stages?

Aug 17, 2011

Investigators are looking for clues about what led to the tragic collapse of an outdoor concert stage at the Indiana State Fair. Five people were killed on Saturday when a 60-mph gust of wind blew the roof and metal scaffolding onto a crowd that was waiting for the band Sugarland to start playing.

Video of the collapse has been replayed millions of times on YouTube. And the disaster has focused public attention on the question of who exactly is supposed to be inspecting outdoor stages. The answer — at least in this case — appears to be no one.

"It varies on what side of the border you're on," says Paul Wertheimer, the founder of Crowd Management Strategies, a consulting company that advises concert promoters on crowd safety. Wertheimer says regulations governing temporary stages can differ wildly from one municipality to the next.

"When it's a state property, as in the Indiana State Fair grounds, the stages don't have to be inspected," he says. "But if that same stage that collapsed been built in the city of Indianapolis, there would've been an inspector who would've looked at it before it was made available for use."

Officials for the state's Occupational Safety and Health Administration are inspecting the site now — hoping to find something in the pile of twisted aluminum that will explain why it collapsed.

"Frankly, you can't make any structures stand up to all the possible wind conditions on this earth," says Karl Ruling, the technical standards manager for PLASA, a trade group that represents the lighting and sound industries, among others.

PLASA has helped craft voluntary safety standards for outdoor concert stages, like the one that failed in Indiana. Ruling says the standards for wind vary depending on what's likely in a given location. But what doesn't change is the need for a backup plan when the weather turns extreme.

"You need to have a plan of, what are you going to do to watch the weather? And exactly at what points do you say, it's getting dangerous," says Ruling. "So if you do it, I'm not going to guarantee that the wind won't blow something down. But if you follow the standard, you're going to have everyone out of the way."

That is not what happened in Indiana. Officials at the Indiana State Fair did not return calls for comment for this story. The company that built the stage, Mid-America Sound, is also declining interview requests, pending the outcome of the investigation.

While the stage collapse at the Indiana State Fair was unusually deadly, it is not unique. This summer alone, high winds played a roll in two other stage collapses: earlier this month, winds toppled a video screen on a stage where The Flaming Lips were set to play, and a 40-ton stage roof fell on the band Cheap Trick during its set at an outdoor festival in Ottawa, Canada in July.

"We were lucky cause our truck was in back," says David Frey, Cheap Trick's manager. "[The roof] fell on our truck and broke the fall, and gave us time to get out."

Frey and Cheap Trick survived the incident unharmed, although their equipment was damaged. On the advice of his lawyer, Frey isn't saying much else about the incident, although he did allow that "perhaps weather wasn't the sole reason" for the collapse. That incident is also under official investigation.

The recent wind-related disasters in Ottawa and Indiana look ominously similar to Yvan Miron, the founder and president of Stageline, a Canadian company that builds mobile stages. "The fact is, those storms are out there," says Miron. "They may be more frequent than they were in the past. So that's important to really take a step back and think about raising the standards."

Miron says his own company builds stages to withstand winds of up to 90 mph. And he would like to see the rest of the industry move in the direction of tougher standards, as well. "It starts with the musicians saying, 'Okay, we want to be sure that from now on, we're playing on structures that will guarantee that no matter what, we're safe.' Technicians should say the same. It's the whole industry," Miron says.

The band Sugarland never did take the stage in Indiana. But opening act Sarah Bareilles did. In a post on her web site, she said the accident felt "like a bad dream," and that the weather turned dangerous in "a matter of minutes."

But safety consultant Paul Wertheimer says officials at the state fair had plenty of warning that the storm was coming. The Indianapolis Symphony cancelled its outdoor concert just 13 miles away, and Wertheimer says the state fair could've done the same — but it didn't.

"Had the stage simply collapsed without the crowd underneath, we probably wouldn't be talking about this today," says Wertheimer. "The main issue is the crowd. And that's what officials don't want to talk about: the failure to manage the crowd and protect them."

Wertheimer hopes the tragedy in Indiana will lead to tougher, national safety standards for outdoor concerts. But left to its own devices, he doesn't think the concert industry is likely to solve the problem.

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