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ICS for mass gatherings

When tens of thousands of country-music fans descend on Cavendish, P.E.I., every summer, the risk of potential disaster increases – crowds, weather, traffic and over-indulgence can all turn bad quickly.

June 2, 2014 
By Laura King

When tens of thousands of country-music fans descend on Cavendish, P.E.I., every summer, the risk of potential disaster increases – crowds, weather, traffic and over-indulgence can all turn bad quickly.

Cavendish Beach Music Festival  
The annual Cavendish Beach Music Festival draws thousands of country-music fans to Prince Edward Island every July; members of first responste agencies work together using the incident command system so that everyone knows practices and protocols. Photos by laura king


That’s why emergency responders on the island decided five years ago they better be prepared to work harmonously if something were to go wrong at the Cavendish Beach Music Festival (CBMF).

“We approached the  district commander with the RCMP here and said we’d like to have the opportunity to run this event under the incident command system (ICS) and see how it works,” said Cpl. Scott Stevenson of the RCMP’s forensics unit.


“It was the first time anything like that was done on the island.”

Stevenson was one of two designated incident commanders at the 2013 festival, headlined by the Dixie Chicks.

“After the first year, ICS was identified as a best practice and we’ve continued to build on that,” Stevenson said in an interview in the command area next to the site where communication, medical, search and rescue and policing personnel were stationed.

Why ICS at family style event at which laid-back fans lounge in lawn chairs and are pretty well behaved? 

Good question, said Stevenson, who supplied a convincing answer.

“If this was a rock show it would be totally different mentality. This is country and people are a bit more laid back. But that said, it’s not just police function.

“The way I look at it, Boston was just a marathon until the bombs went off. And then it changed. It’s no different here. Nowadays you don’t know. Somebody doesn’t like country music or whatever …”

Not to mention big-city lessons from the wind-driven stage collapse at the 2011 Ottawa Bluesfest that sent dozens of people to hospital, and the 2012 stage collapse at a Toronto Radiohead concert that killed a worker.

“Now we’ve got all the various partner agencies that are working on it together,” Stevenson said. “We’re all speaking common language, they all know what their respective roles are and it works really well.”

The annual music festival draws an average of 18,000 people a day to quaint Cavendish – population 300 – home of Anne of Green Gables and world-famous sand dunes.

RCMP, fire, EMS, search and rescue and myriad other personnel are all trained in incident command. Agencies plan together, train together and have honed protocols for everything from emergency exits to fire response and record keeping.

“All of the emergency responders train several times a year in multi-agency exercises,” Stevenson said. “The CBMF senior incident management team conducts a table-top exercise prior to the event to ensure roles and responsibilities of all agencies are recognized.”  The table top exercise is hosted by the P.E.I. Office of Public Safety.

“We conduct an overall debriefing after the event to discuss what worked, what didn’t and where do we go from here. And several months prior to the event we begin meeting again to ensure any issues are covered off.”

A private security firm – Charlottetown-based Toursec Entertainment Life Safety – manages the festival grounds; RCMP are responsible for policing outside the concert site – which can hold up to 27,000 people.

“They do a lot of these events right around Atlantic Canada,” Stevenson said of Toursec. “They’ve said the way that we run this, you guys treat us like equals, most other places treat us like mall cops and you guys treat us really, really well; if they’re not doing their jobs we can’t do ours and if we can’t partner up together it’s not good.

‘They’ve actually come in and taken some incident command system training from us. Some of their management people are trained up to the ICS300 level so we’re all speaking the same language. The New Glasgow Fire Department does fire support and they have ICS, the EMS people have ICS training; all the partners that work together in here are working under ICS.”

Incidentally, Toursec’s website says of entertainment life safety: “We created the category. ELS is the big picture, looking at every aspect of safety from risk management to responding in an emergency. Our integration into the response team is a first in Canada, a model that is being extensively studied.”

For P.E.I. Fire Marshal Dave Rossiter the event is a giant undertaking. Rossiter and Deputy Fire Marshal Robert Arsenault are the P.E.I. Office of the Fire Marshal – they do all the island’s inspections and investigations (except within the City of Charlottetown) – so ensuring safety is crucial.

“We go into the planning months in advance,” Rossiter said in an interview at the festival site.

“Friday morning we go in and do our final inspection along with the propane inspector and once we sign off then it’s a go. If there are issues then they get fixed; if they don’t get fixed it’s a no go . . . that’s the way it works, plain and simple.”

Food and drink vendors dot the festival site. Scantily clad festival-goers dive from an elevated platform onto a giant air mattress – for fun. (What could go wrong?) At 3 p.m., hours before the Dixie Chicks are scheduled to perform, a lineup of grandparents, teenagers, and middle-aged couples – many wearing jean shorts and cowboy boots – snakes around the main entrance

“We come in every night and we’ll do rounds,” Rossiter says. “We always check the vendors, and we check the main gate and we keep updates as far as the numbers of people who are coming in all the time.

“We’re doing that through the actual producer because he sends out an email on what tickets are sold, so if he says that he’s got 20,000 in, we go in and we look at that database . . .  so last night was 18,000. If he has more and we find out about it I can pull his permit right there, which means his liquor licence and the whole nine yards.”

One of the terms of the producer’s permit is on-site fire protection with a four-person pumper crew – which is provided by the New Glasgow Fire Department – and provision of a golf cart so fire department members can get around the grounds. For Rossiter, that was a deal breaker.

“That was a condition I put onto the promoter, saying you have to do this or you don’t get a permit, simple as that. You negotiate the price for fire protection – I’m not getting into that. That’s how that works.”

If there were a fire incident, the New Glasgow Fire Department would take the lead, Rossiter said.

“Unless I see an immediate threat to life, in which case we can step in. We still keep an eye on the prevention side of things. They’ll do rounds with the cart; the blowouts [exits] that we have, they’ll make sure they’re clear and accessible. At the end of the night we can have empty this field of 20,000 in five minutes, easily.”

Rossiter also insisted that the producer build an emergency-vehicle-only access road to the concert site – it’s affectionately known as Dave’s Road – that could sustain at least a tandem 3,000-gallon tanker.

A unique feature of the festival site – a former cow pasture – is that it borders national park land, so Parks Canada is part of the ICS-trained response team.

“If we have a fire here [at the Parks Canada border] it is their responsibility,” Stevenson said. “If we have missing people go in there, it’s their responsibility.”

Stevenson said the key agencies that work closely together before and during the festival, from an emergency management perspective, are fire, police, security, EMS, liquor inspectors and the fire marshal’s office.

“Some of the smaller ones,” he said, “are the municipality, and the departments of health and environment.”

The island’s ground search and rescue teams are also on site.

“There are two hasty teams stationed at the site during the day for the whole event, every day,” Stevenson said, “just in the event that we have some missing people we can start a hasty search right away.”

Stevenson learned years ago that it’s crucial that when multiple agencies work together, everyone understands the processes and protocols.

“When I was stationed in Toronto we were doing a summit between the president and the prime minister, working with the United States Secret Service and the Toronto Police Service, and one of our guys called 10-100. All of the sudden we started to see emergency vehicles. To us, a 10-100 is a nature break; to them a 10-100 was a bomb scare!”

Between 35 and 40 paid RCMP members work the Cavendish festival site daily, some brought in specially for the event; the RCMP has its own operational communications section on site.

“They’re monitoring fire, EMS, RCMP and security,” Stevenson said.

P.E.I. Fire Marshal Dave Rossiter  
P.E.I. Fire Marshal Dave Rossiter (left) and RCMP Cpl. Scott Stevenson (centre) chat with an event security leader during the 2013 Cavendish Beach Music Festival. A private security firm monitors the site; its members are trained in ICS.


The agencies expect to have interoperable radios on site as soon as 2015; for now the RCMP operational communications centre (OCC) has an operator on site who dispatches for the festival. Fire and EMS are dispatched separately, as are security and site venue personal, but the  OCC monitors all agencies’ communications.

The RCMP also brings in a team to install cameras around the site as a back up for the on-site security team.

“If a fight breaks out we can zoom in on that area – it’s backup for the private security guys when they’re affecting an arrest or what not; it’s a way to watch their backs, and we can also monitor the crowd around them to see if it’s getting out of hand.”

The RCMP’s Shawn MacEachern, a sergeant with the Atlantic region’s protective technical security services, says everything is recorded all the time; if something comes up, police or security or fire investigators can review the footage.

“To give you an example,” Stevenson said, “the second or third year we were here we had a child get separated from the parents and the mom came over in a panic. She had a description of the clothes she was wearing and the camera operator said, ‘I just saw her.’ It was a really bizarre shirt. He panned over to where he saw her, she was still there, we sent security and we had her back with mom in five minutes.”

Overall, says Stevenson, use of the ICS has made it easier to draw other responders into the event.

“We’re a lot more cohesive,” he said. “There’s a lot more buy-in from the partnering agencies because they’re seeing how well this is working.”

In 2013, ICS Canada paid for emergency managers and ground search-and-rescue leaders from across Canada to attend a pre-festival workshop to see how an all-hazard, multi-agency event is managed under ICS.

“Although the majority of what we do here is police function,” Stevenson said, “we use a multi-agency overhead team, so we have people from Public Safety Canada, from the RCMP, Parks Canada and others sitting on the incident management team. You don’t have to be police to be on it; you have to understand ICS but that’s pretty much it.”

An arrest tent set is set up on site and prisoners are transported by van to the correctional centre; two RCMP members go with each driver to and from the centre.

With arrests and citations for underage drinking come paperwork. Previously, that work was done after the festival but the task becoming overwhelming; last summer RCMP brought its computers to the site.

This year’s festival runs July 4-6 with headliners Lady Antebellum and Blake Shelton.

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