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Safety in numbers

Rock festivals and major public events are a challenge to crowd safety specialists such as Symonds Group.

Months of painstaking safety work have gone into this summer's rock festival season. Before a single note is played, organisers must have obtained a local authority safety licence -a complex task in which safety guru Richard Limb specialises.

This summer Limb has been a ubiquitous figure at events ranging from Glastonbury to Gay Pride, working with promoters to ensure that sites can cope with thousands of summer revellers.

As director of leisure safety for facilities management consultancy Symonds Group, Limb provides clients with risk assessment, site design and production, crowd management and - for the first time this summer - event promotion.

Former local authority environmental safety officer, Limb first became involved with crowd safety management when he was called in to advise the promoters of Donnington's 'Monsters of Rock' after two fans were crushed to death in 1989.

In 1990 Limb was asked to chair a Health & Safety Executive working party, charged with producing government guidelines for safety at outdoor events. The guide has become the bible for licensing standards.

'There were no official guidelines. Each promoter had their own standards; some were good and some were bad. These events had just been getting bigger and bigger over 20 years and in the end something had to be done,' he says.

Limb joined consultant Travers Morgan, now a Symonds subsidiary, in 1993 as head of a new department set up to help promoters get their events licensed. Making outdoor events safe has become a personal crusade for Limb and now he is in constant demand from the entertainment industry.

Limb talks quickly and passionately about a job with endless safety angles, whether it be the structural safety of a stage made of Volkswagon cars at Glastonbury or the need to keep alternative entertainment running between bands to discourage large crowd movements.

Good site design underpins Limb's efforts to prevent crushing. Planning starts on a computer terminal to decide where exit gates, toilets, PA systems and catering should be best placed to allow smooth crowd movements. 'Computer aided design is excellent for ensuring a clear line of vision to the stage from every possible vantage point and preventing obstructions between the stage and tents,' he says.

'But physically walking around the site, preferably when it is raining, is just as important. I can then see if the topography will make the site dangerous in slippery conditions and what sort of drainage measures are needed. A lot of money was spent on land drainage at Glastonbury this year.'

Among the tricks to make main stage areas safe are 'dead areas' at the side of the crowd where people can escape from the throng. A raised stage at the front of the arena and large video screens at the back arena to discourage 'surging' towards the front, are also important, says Limb.

'Simultaneous competitive entertainment' to make sure the punters don't converge at one site at one time, can also help. 'The Glastonbury site isn't designed for all 80,000 people to be at the main stage at the same time,' says Limb.

For the moment when Blur or Pulp make their grand entrance, he is grateful for crush barrier technology which has been 'transformed' in the last five years. 'Barriers are now purpose built to the exact width and height to help security people lift people out or distribute water. Dehydration can be a serious problem for people who get to the front of the stage at midday and will still be there at 6pm,' says Limb.

Despite a magician's bag of aids, like directional speakers that can channel sound better across the arena, Limb's primary crown management tool is the professionally trained steward. 'Three years ago I was asked by Melvyn Benn of the Mean Fiddler Organisation and Tom Clemence of Specialised Security to put together and run an unbiased training programme for stewards. We identified 19 areas of expertise including knowledge of civil and criminal and health and safety law, first aid, fire safety, evacuation, monitoring of crowd behaviour and communication skills,' he says.

The training package is a measure of the faith that major promoters place in Limb. This extends to getting them through the hazardous process of gaining a licence from local authorities.

'I was an environmental health officer for North West Leicestershire District Council for 16 years and I know what gets accepted and what doesn't. Over half the proposed outdoor events get cancelled by the promoter or local authority and there is a lot of mutual distrust between the two camps. I've got experience of both sides of the fence. Sometimes I persuade promoters with over extravagant ideas to tone it down and at other times I go to a doubtful council and win them over with a presentation.'

Although Symonds has been involved in the production side of outdoor events for the last year, it is 'event co-ordination' that has seen Limb get his finger in many of the festival pies this summer, including last Sunday's 'Party in the Park', Prince's Trust concert in London's Hyde Park.

'Safety during site construction can be compromised when councils only let you on to the site a few days before the event and up to 50 subcontractors are working through the night. I'm drafted in to monitor proceedings and the promoters give me powers to shut people down if they are not doing things properly.'

Limb has an even busier future ahead. He is currently examining the safety plans for a huge music festival in Bogota, Colombia marking the turn of the millennium. The event is expected to attract 2M people and the organisers will apply the British safety standards which Limb helped to draft.

While thousands will be caught up in the excitement of the summer festival season, Limb will find it hard to relax until it is over.

'When the people arrive it's a tense moment. You have told everybody it is safe. You don't enjoy the entertainment because you are continuously monitoring, walking around the site and keeping an eye on things. But there's huge satisfaction when people approach me at the end and say 'thanks, I had a great time'.'

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