Like many people, I am shaken by the deadly fire at the Ghost Ship warehouse in Oakland, California. Having spent Monday through Thursday last week talking about life safety first to more than 200 attendees at the 2016 Event Safety Summit, and enjoying being surrounded by people who share my commitment to this important cause, on Friday night I was shocked back to the reality that many people don’t think much about risk or safety at all.

I have no particular insight into the specifics that occurred in Oakland. I read the same news stories you do. Instead, I am devoting this space to (1) the context in which something like this could occur, yet again, and (2) what each of us can do about it.


Here are some pictures of the “Ghost Ship” warehouse/art space/residence in Oakland, CA before the December 2, 2016 fire.  Here is historical perspective on fires in entertainment spaces by John Barylick, the lead attorney for the victims of The Station nightclub fire in Rhode Island that took 100 lives back in 2003, who was our first Event Safety Summit keynote speaker three years ago.  This article from Billboard offers “expert” advice, including mine, what patrons might look for when entering a party venue that looks sketchy.  And this excellent article from Amplify shows the warehouse in Los Angeles where the promoter 100% Silk sent the DJ Golden Donna just a week earlier, along with some pointed comments from the building’s “supervisors” about the meaning of spaces like theirs.  Ghost ShipTHE IMPORTANCE OF EMPOWERMENT

In the wake of Paris and Orlando, active shooter incidents justifiably grabbed the headlines, and it is commendable that resource-rich venues are trying to harden their shells against future terror incidents.

On the other hand, Oakland reminds us that lots of people seek their entertainment in less prosperous environments.  During the Event Safety Summit, we spent a great deal of time talking about safety, as opposed to security, because safety is something that everyone can enhance regardless of resources.  Here are a few examples:

  • Tim Roberts from The Event Safety Shop discussed the importance of considering the “personality” of the reasonably foreseeable crowd when doing crowd management planning, and creating a simple common language to describe heightening risk levels.
  • Dave Lester from Clair Global explained how confirmation bias slows our ability to recognize and react to unexpected threats, and Dr. Kevin Kloesel from the Oklahoma University Office of Emergency Preparedness applied that concept to severe weather planning before a small city’s holiday Christmas parade.
  • Roger Barrett from Star Events Ltd. explained the difference between horizontal lighting truss versus vertical tower truss, pointing out the easily observed differences and their effect on the likelihood of a temporary structure collapse
  • I talked about contract language as risk management.

To me, empowerment is an essential difference between education for safety versus security.  I have ESA ESS 2016 DAY 2 FULL RES-259-minattended enough active shooter training by veterans of law enforcement or the military that I can fairly summarize the gist as follows: (a) for your personal safety, Run, Hide, Fight; and (b) in your professional capacity, call for law enforcement and follow their instructions once they arrive and take over the scene. This sort of top-down training is good for people used to taking direction and following orders. It is not, however, empowering for guest services staff or crowd managers to be taught the importance of  immediate reaction rather than thoughtful deliberation.

By contrast, the gist of safety training is (a) teaching everyone to recognize routine risks, and (b) what they can do to minimize those risks. In other words, safety training emphasizes situational awareness.  Any guard standing post can see when a security line is getting too long, or when a crowd is getting too dense; any young rigger can see when the truss bracing is turned in the wrong direction; any guest services staff can ask about the accommodations to evacuate persons with disabilities.  John Barylick advises that everyone should be their “own fire marshal;” I understand what he means, but I don’t think we can count on most patrons watching out for their own safety – they rely on the organizers to do that for them. But it is reasonable to expect anyone working an event to ensure that the exits near them are visible and unobstructed.

Not only does safety training cause even occasional staff to think for themselves about safety, it also empowers them to think about their jobs actively, not just passively. This applies to everyone, even promoters and artists. Imagine if someone from 100% Silk or their DJ had walked up the wooden pallet staircase to Ghost Ship’s second floor, through the labyrinth of cluttered spaces, plugged their equipment into a long extension cord, and concluded that the show should not go on? We probably wouldn’t be having this conversation.


But Oakland did happen, so I have an agenda.  You probably did not start at the top of your field. This tragedy involving a DIY entertainment space should remind us that there are lots of environments struggling to make ends meet, that served as a farm system for many of us when we were first starting out.

I never thought about safety when I started going to shows as a kid. I just went wherever my friends did.  Didn’t you?

With a memory of my teenage self in some dive nightclub, clueless about risk or safety, and with an awareness that sketchy shows now are not much different from the ones with which most of us began, I issue the following call to action:

  1. Talk up safety at work. If you encourage your peers to think for themselves about one new thing that is within their ability, in this instance safety, then you may empower them to grow in other ways as well. In nearly every circumstance, it is good to think how to do your job better.
  2. Talk up the safety of your work with people outside your job. The details of most people’s work are pretty boring to outsiders, but in the live event industry we have great stories to tell. Nearly everyone finds something interesting about sports or entertainment, so we naturally have a bully pulpit. Next time you’re telling a story about a gig, try describing a safety measure – I guarantee that outsiders will be interested, because that’s how our operational realities touch their lives as patrons. This is an easy way to get beyond our usual echo chamber, and it gives you something to talk about even at holiday parties!
  3. Change your hiring criteria. The live entertainment industry, whether on the venue or event side, sports or music, has basically no barriers to entry.  Most jobs require no degree, no particular training, no certification of minimum competency.  Most of us, I suspect, began our careers organically rather than through a carefully planned course of study and apprenticeship.  Perhaps this has disserved our industry. Consider putting your team through ESA’s Event Safety Access Training, , a one-day entry-level course which teaches safety awareness and specific information that will help avoid harm.  ESA currently offers this training live as a road show, and will soon release an on-line version as well.  You can add more strong, young voices to the safety choir!
  4. Contribute to the health of our industry. I would love for each of you to join the Event Safety Alliance so that your modest annual dues will help us spread the message of life safety first beyond those who already get it.    

In order to create a culture in which everyone thinks about safety within their own areas of expertise and experience, and feels empowered to speak up if things don’t look right, we must reach beyond the already-converted.  You are engaged enough to spend this time reading Adelman on Venues – please turn that engagement into action that will help more people to work, play, and live safely in the event industry.