A Trust Betrayed: Safety Became The Twelfth Victim
The December 3, 1979 Who concert tragedy in Cincinnati, Ohio, ranks as the most horrific rock concert incident in the United States. Eleven rock fans were crushed to death and scores injured because of gross crowd management failings. In many ways, this disaster lives on like other terrible moments befalling a community. People recall the nightmare in disbelief; many have personal stories to tell. A landmark report on concert safety, Crowd Management: The Report of the Task Force on Crowd Control and Safety, was published in 1980 by a special Cincinnati citizen task force. The critically acclaimed report contained many recommendations designed to prevent a repeat of the disaster. Among the report's most important recommendations are two from Chapter VII:
1. The International Association of Auditorium Managers should develop national crowd management standards for facility operators and event promoters.
The recommendations were directed to the Irving, Texas-based International Association Auditorium Managers* (IAAM) because it, more than any other association, represented a broad spectrum of public assembly facility managers in the United States and worldwide. Thousands of rock concerts and festivals were held annually in the arenas, amphitheaters, stadiums and theaters of IAAM members.
The IAAM's official response was positive and came shortly after the task force released its recommendations. In an August 1980 IAAM news release then IAAM president Jack Fearey made his organization's position clear:
"IAAM is taking up the challenge laid down by the Cincinnati Task Force to develop and implement universal safety standards for crowd management."
Mr. Fearey proceeded to outline IAAM's motive and the appropriateness for undertaking this project:
"It is further hoped that the [IAAM] study group's activities may serve to balance any hasty attempts to legislate controls which essentially should be management decisions made by professionals in the field."
IAAM representative Glennon J. Walsh restated these positions in his letter to Paul Wertheimer. (Mr. Wertheimer served as chief of staff for the task force and was the City of Cincinnati's public information officer at the time). Mr. Walsh wrote:
"The International Association of Auditorium Managers, at its annual conference…determined that one of its major goals for 1981 will be to undertake a conprehensive [sic] study on crowd behavior and management with the purpose of developing guidelines for the facility-management professionals and related organizations."
Not only did the association voluntarily agree to produce a study and safety standards, but approximately a year later, Mr. Fearey raised the ante by boasting to members, in a 1981 issue of the IAAM's Auditorium News:
[The IAAM plans to produce]"the first major study of crowd behavior since…1935."
The IAAM's acceptance of the task force's recommendations and its talk of a landmark crowd safety study culminated in the development of a special foundation. In the early 1980s confidence ran high that needed changes were in store for the way rock concerts were planned and managed. No rock concert industry problem deserved more attention or was more ripe for resolution.
Retreat Then Abandonment
The promises made by the IAAM were never fulfilled.
Quietly, and behind the scene, the IAAM retreated from its bold visions and abandoned its pledges. Instead of working toward industry standards, or producing a definitive crowd management study, IAAM detoured to a lower road and began sponsoring well choreographed conferences and seminars that steered away from discussions addressing "comphrensive" safety studies and standards.
One can only wonder how many lives might have been saved and how many injuries might have been prevented had the IAAM had kept its word. It is not a pleasant reflection.
Somebody Forgot To Tell The British
The objectives the IAAM originally set out to accomplish were never impossible to achieve. The Who task force recommendations proved that serious study could produce reasonable standards and guidelines. And communities around the country, such as Cincinnati, Ohio, showed that concert safety laws were not only needed, but workable.
While the IAAM abandoned its course, others found the problem no longer tolerable. Beyond a doubt, the most impressive accomplishments in the area of concert safety are British. Contrary to the present U.S. rock concert industry mantra-All concert events are different, therefore standards cannot be developed-the British government and British rock concert industry showed the world that standardized guidelines were possible. In 1993, the Health and Safety Commission of the Home Office and The Scottish Office published the Guide to Health, Safety and Welfare at Pop Concerts and Similar Events. The "Purple" guide or "Pop" guide, as it is called, contains 145 pages of excellent commentary and guidelines and is used by concert promoters and staffs throughout the United Kingdom. (The impetus for the guide came after two rock fans were killed at a 1988 festival.)
Instead of embracing the accomplishments of the forward thinking British, the IAAM-as well as the United States rock concert industry-generally ignored the milestone.
What Will It Be IAAM?
The IAAM's failure has been costly. The tip of the iceberg is now visible. According to the best available estimate, the post-Who concert tragedy period has produced at least 132 concert crowd safety-related deaths worldwide-crowd crushes, festival seating deaths, over crowding, moshing, violence, etc. (Forty-nine deaths, or 37 percent, were in the United States. ) In addition, over the past two decades hundreds of thousands of concertgoers have suffered injuries and property damage costs in the United States can be placed in the millions. While it is not the intention to blame the association for this development, the IAAM's inaction nevertheless has not helped matters.
Today, safety standards and legislation to protect concert crowds are still urgently needed. The proliferation of concerts, the repeat of avoidable disasters and the profile of concert audiences-a large segment of which are teenagers and children-require the establishment of safeguards.
IAAM cannot right the missteps it has taken. However, it can help to protect future generations. To do this, two steps need to be taken. First, the IAAM must honor the pledges it made to the Who concert task force. Second, the IAAM should support safety laws that protect concert audiences from abuse.
These are reasonable pleas appropriately timed for the remembrance of the eleven dead in Cincinnati--and for all victims since. Many eyes are upon the International Association of Assembly Managers.* The need is great and the time is now. Safety officials, concertgoers, parents, industry professionals legislators and, yes, lawyers-- pause and wonder. What will it be IAAM?
*In 1996, the International Association of Auditorium Managers modified its name by replacing "Auditorium" with "Assembly."
What Is Your Opinion?
In 1981, a questionnaire sent randomly to recipients of The Who concert tragedy task force report found that 94% of those surveyed agreed that national safety standards are needed.
Do you believe that crowd safety standards should be developed?
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