The frightening story of the stage collapse at the Indiana State Fair on Saturday, which killed five people and injured more than 40, has ignited debate in the event industry over whether such incidents can be prevented.

Last month, the stage at Bluesfest in Ottawa also collapsed, injuring three people. In both cases, sudden gusts of powerful wind have been blamed for the accidents.

In a press conference, Indiana State Fair spokesman Andy Klotz called Saturday's event "a freakish act of God," and some in the event industry say that no amount of planning can ward off all dangers.

"You can take tens of thousands of steps to guard against any mishaps," says Mark Anderson, account executive with Tempe, Ariz.-based Southwest Scenic Group. "But ultimately, 'Mother Nature' is the final authority, indoor or outdoor, public or private."

Others, however, say more can be done to make temporary stages safer.

STICK WITH SCIENCE

"If a building collapse could be written off to unpredictable weather, then we would have a lot more building collapses," notes David Smith, owner of Los Angeles-based ShowPro. "The bottom line is this--there is science that can remove the unpredictability of weather from the equation. Any time one is installing a temporary structure, a licensed engineer needs to review the specifications of the structure, determine what type of ballast or other protection is needed to prevent the structure from failing, stamp the drawing of the structure to prove that the calculations have been done, then the structure needs to be built according to the engineer’s plans. Period."

Smith points to a Virgin Galactic event in the California desert in 2009, where winds destroyed a big tent structure.

"The tent on the Virgin Galactic event was rated for up to 30 mph winds and was installed in an area that can see 70 mph winds frequently," Smith says. "I can’t tell you how many times I look up in the air and see a lighting fixture hanging over my head that does not have a safety chain, which catches the light should the clamp fail--not at our gigs, of course! It is time for producers to get serious about ensuring that systems are safe, that engineering is done for any significant structures that are built, and that building and safety codes are complied with."

Rebuttal: Since this story was published, the president of Town & Country Event Rentals, which served as a vendor for the Virgin event, presented a rebuttal to these assertions; read more here.

BEING CAREFUL COSTS MONEY

Longtime event consultant Bob Estrin, based in Los Angeles, notes that the pressure to cut costs can compromise safety.

"Cutting corners, which causes potential safety problems, is widespread in the event industry," Estrin says. "Shortened load-in and -out times, use of unskilled labor, and always going with the low bid are the cause of most accidents at events."

Estrin offers this recipe for temporary structures at events: "Certified installers, proper permits and engineering drawings, third-party verification of proper installation, and proper safety plans being executed."

PUTTING PEOPLE FIRST

Greg Poulos urges event planners not to get so tied up in the excitement of the events they create that they forget to take care of their attendees.

"No one should ever forget: We deal with the public," says Poulos, head of Bluefin Productions of Belmont, Mass. "It is our job not only to make the event look good, but to make sure every attendee has a good time, the client gets good return on their investment, and all return home safe after the event--including the crew!"

Pulos refers Special Events readers to the blogs "Jim on Light" and "Control Geek" for the technical industry's reaction to the Indiana stage collapse.

Photo by iStockphoto.com / © Arkadi Bojaršinov

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