Safety Hub AfterBurn Report – YOUtopia 2017
The Principle of Civic Responsibility states in part, “community members who organize events should assume responsibility for public welfare”. At YOUtopia, the Safety Hub works year round to plan, train and prepare – and 24/hours a day while we’re on the mountain – to ensure the wellbeing of all YOUtopia’s participants, as well as that of the event site.
The Safety Hub monitors most aspects of physical and environmental safety pre, during and post-event. The Co-Hub Leads are tasked with creating the safety plan and developing, documenting and enforcing all safety policies, with the support of the event producers and under the supervision of SDCAP. The Safety Hub also creates and delivers training for all YOUtopia leads in emergency and radio protocols throughout the year and at our annual on-site safety training event – SAFEtopia.
Fire: YOUtopia is held during the peak of fire season at a venue which is at high risk for wildfire. Add to that a dense population of both humans and vehicles distributed throughout wooded nooks and crannies and you get the picture… uncontrolled fire is the number 1 public safety risk at YOUtopia. We do not burn effigies and very sparingly approve ember producing fires of any kind. We have a well established process for approving all fire art, fire pits and heating elements and this year introduced a generator and fuel storage policy.
Emergency Roads and Road Safety: The campground where YOUtopia comes to life is serviced entirely by a single unpaved road which runs through the property, and only 2 entry and exit gates. Like a river with tributaries, the road has offshoots that allow participants to reach the more remote areas of the property, but which dead-end without allowing egress from the venue. Approximately 25% of the road is narrow enough that 2 cars cannot freely pass each other and there are significant “pinch-points” where little more than the minimum 16’ required for emergency vehicles is all that exists. Maintaining clear emergency roads in an environment where they can easily be blocked by a single car stopping to chat with a friend or ask for directions is a major challenge – particularly during primary entry and exodus when there is a high volume of traffic (and folks stopping to load and unload) and differently, when the roads become thronged with pedestrians experiencing the city’s delights alongside mutant and event vehicles.
Winds: The weather on the mountain is generally temperate with highs averaging in the mid 70’s and lows averaging in the low 50’s. Given the time of year, however we can experience periods of high wind (sustained 30 mph with gusts up to 50 mph). Wind conditions impact all decisions related to continued use of approved fire pits, fire spinning and fire art throughout the event. We also learned this year that we need to get the word out to the community and collaborate more closely with the Art Curation and City Planning teams to ensure that art and camp structures are routinely being secured to the ground more effectively (we had a couple of pieces blow over in high winds).
The Safety Hub has 2 Co-Hub-Leads and 5 departments:
- Fire Safety: This year we expanded our Fire Safety team significantly and established 2 collaborating sub-groups with distinct focusses. The entire team coordinates venue wide fire-prevention and response, as well as public education. They also order, place, and monitor hundreds of fire extinguishers around the site. The FAST team (Fire Art Safety Team) inspects and authorizes or rejects all fire art, fire pits and heat sources and acts as liaisons with the tribal and local fire authorities. The Fire Performance team is tasked with brush clearance (pre-event) and the establishment and monitoring of sun-down to sun-up designated fire-spin zones. The Fire Safety team reports all fire-related incidents to a Safety Hub Lead for documentation purposes.
- Waldos: This team acts as the front line for participant emergency communications. They staff 7 clearly identifiable stations throughout the mountain and provide instant radio access for participants in need of safety/emergency services. The Waldos also act as extra eyes and ears in locations where incidents are common and, secondarily, provide general information such as directions or assistance in finding help with issues surrounding placement, noise complaints, or other such problems that can be solved in total or in part through radio communications. Waldos are also available 24/hours as a resource for re-deployment in case of an evacuation or major emergency requiring a large perimeter or traffic management.
- Rangers: This team serves as non-confrontational community mediators, providers of reliable information and facilitators of public safety. Whether walking or riding throughout the event, they offer neutral intervention when necessary in participant interactions. They also serve as as incident reporters – a required first step in certain protocols, such as event eviction. Rangers are key to overall event safety offering broad observation 24/7, identifying situations, intervening where appropriate or handing-off matters to security, fire, medical/harm reduction, or the Safety Hub Leads as needed.
- Security: Professional security services are provided through a contract with an outside vendor, High Rock Security. Our security team, while generally not present for other team meetings/trainings, are staffed by folks familiar with our event and culture and work in close cooperation with all other departments within the Safety Hub to provide services that are beyond the scope of our volunteers, such as intruder apprehensions, participant evictions or detentions for law enforcement, perimeter guarding, and other duties as determined pre-event or on-site.
- Medical and Harm Reduction: Professional and volunteer professional medical staff are provided through a contract with an outside vendor, RGX Medical. Our medical team, while generally not present for other team trainings, works in cooperation with all other departments within the Safety Hub to provide services that are beyond the scope of our other volunteers, such as first aid and emergency medical response. Alongside Medical (and also coordinated by RGX) are Zendo and Dance Safe who are the mainstays of our event’s harm-reduction program. The Zendo Project provides a safe space for participants experiencing challenging emotional or psychedelic experiences offering non-judgemental peer counselling and support. Dance Safe is a 501(c)(3) public health organization providing peer-based education designed to reduce drug misuse and empower people to make healthy, informed lifestyle choices. They distribute educational literature describing the effects and risks associated with the use of various drugs and offer “pill-testing”.
What did we do incredibly well this year and what can we improve?
Collaboration: Working as a cohesive team is critical to the success of the Safety Hub and on the mountain we worked almost seamlessly. Both the Hub Leads were fully engaged, present and available and our hand-offs were thorough, making it easy for the teams to just keep moving regardless of which Hub-Lead was on shift. We collaborated well with other departments, including particularly Road Warriors, City Planning, DMV, Transportation and Gate to alleviate emergency road congestion.
2 Hub Leads: This year we had Co-Hub Leads at least one of whom was on shift 24/7 from the time we arrived on the mountain until all but the last 2 people had left the site. While having co-leads was a significant improvement in sharing the workload, we found that we frequently needed to have both of us on shift at the same time during peak event periods and that the 8 hours on/8 hours off schedule we had planned was impossible to maintain. We ended up consistently working closer to 10-12 hour shifts and, while we managed to get enough sleep and stay present and focussed on our task, neither of us spent more than a couple of hours total enjoying the event. Except for a few hours hanging out with the Rangers as things quieted down near dawn, it was almost all working at a fever pitch or sleeping from Monday pre-event through Monday post-event. We believe it is HIGHLY preferable to train a shift lead – maybe as an on-mountain-only co-lead – in order to ensure a healthier schedule.
Incidents: This year saw another significant reduction in reported incidents (although a perfect comparison is impossible because we changed some of our reporting categories). The “List of Zeros” is great – 0 fatalities, 0 life-flights, 0 ambulance calls, 0 major injuries, 0 reported sexual assaults, 0 un-controlled fires, 0 arrests and 0 participant evictions. We’re not naive, we have reason to believe some incidents went unreported and intend to expand our communications and public outreach to support full reporting, but we are grateful that it was overall a safe and largely peaceful event.
Waldos: We had challenges with the Waldos. One of our leads was unable to fully fulfill their role and a significant number of volunteers no-showed requiring us to reassign some security positions and to leave some Waldo’s stations uncovered even during important coverage shifts. Our safety plan currently relies on our ability to redeploy Waldo’s in emergency situations and while we would have been able to manage with Rangers and Security redeployments, this is an area of concern for us. We intend to focus on earlier recruitment and training for the Waldo’s team in 2018 and more significant team-building efforts pre-event to mitigate the no-show issue.
New Safety HQ: We moved Safety HQ to a highly visible central location at the top of the hill in Area 5. This proved to be an excellent decision – making us vastly more accessible and creating far more opportunity for participant-engagement not only related to incidents, but also just sharing the fire-pit with folks on chilly nights and in the wee hours of the morning. Responsive to suggestions from last year’s Hub Lead we altered the set-up of the HQ so that access to the closed off portion was only THROUGH the open, public portion (rather than a separate side entrance) which improved our ability to control access to radios and supplies. We also had a 24 hour presence in the Safety HQ this year, with Khaki managing ranger dispatch from the shared post and frequently a Waldo present at the station as well.
Logistics: Unfortunately, logistics remained a bit of a challenge for the hub and we need to continue to improve our process for dispensing radios and batteries to maintain better controls. Also – transportation was a challenge for the entire event (given the late cancellation of our order for Kubotas) and while huge kudos are due to the logistics team for making it work as well as it did, access to more transportation – particularly at night – is an important priority for the Hub.
Reporting: Lack of consistency in reporting procedures also remains an issue and we intend to do additional training across all Hub departments and with the entire production team to ensure that everyone understands what needs to be reported, to whom and the like. Each team had a different process for reporting incidents to the Safety Hub lead and systematic improvements are needed.
Volunteer Party: A point of serious concern is the on-site post-event “volunteer party”. When this party began a few years ago it was a low key wrap party for the Ops team – limited to department leads and staff who were required to remain on site for cleanup- ended between 12-1 AM, had no bar and had little more than an IPod stereo. In the past few years this has shifted into any/all volunteers or artists +1 guest event hosted by a major sound camp with a full bar. This year the party did not wrap up until 5:30 am, required significant energy and resources to manage intoxicated and green dot participants and required security support for a number of issues. The Safety Hub Leads believe that this party has become counter productive to the safe and efficient wrap up of YOUtopia, and may be a violation of our land contract which provides for only staff to remain on the mountain past 2pm on Sunday. It is therefore the recommendation of the Safety Hub that the wrap party be significantly scaled back (to something similar to it’s original scale) or eliminated entirely – particularly in light of the workload Monday. However, if it is to continue we will expect the contract issues to be resolved and need to have significant additional resources available including Zendo, additional Security and more scheduled volunteers.
Fire Education and Operational Improvements: This year the Safety Hub took the opportunity (afforded to us by a variety of external influences, eg. ghost ship fire, the tragedy during Man-burn and wildfires moving through the western United States) to revisit our policies and SOP’s, and to dramatically increase public awareness, regarding Fire Safety. This included some changes to our procedures for certifying fire based art, fire pits/heat sources, and introducing a policy for safe generator usage and fuel storage. Our fire safety team now implements a tagging system for all fire/heat based art and fire pits on the mountain that allows any event staff to quickly determine (by the examination of tags) whether or not an installation/pit has been vetted and approved (or disapproved) by our fire safety team. This allowed us to more effectively make use of our Fire team’s limited time, because they were not having to spend as much time checking on things that were already approved and they were able to track down rogue fire pits, enforce/educate participants about our new generator/heat source policies and in general have an overall decrease in response times. Larger – more visible – tags and further education of the production team should further improve repeat calls on approved art/pits.
The other major change made to Fire Safety at YOUtopia this year was the creation of a division of Fire Safety specifically devoted to mitigating the inherent dangers of fire performances. Our fire Performance leads were able to designate specific areas at the event where fire performance would be permitted and provided trained volunteers to staff those areas to ensure that all performances from individual fire spinners up to large conclave group performances were executed in safe and enjoyable way.
The cumulative result of our changes to fire Safety yielded phenomenal improvements in participant buy-in and a general sense of safety and security. While we will discuss some specific improvements we would like to make for next year later in this report, overall we are ecstatic with the performance of Fire Safety this year.
Lost Parents: One unanticipated issue the Safety Hub encountered this year is the problem of “lost parents”. Our policies and SOP’s are designed to address lost children and focus on gate closures, searching for missing minors and dealing with parents seeking reunification with their children. This year we encountered the opposite situation, in that we had “lost parents”. In one case parents could not be located for several hours and in another the same parents went missing on multiple occasions. Managing unsupervised and distressed minors was a serious resource drain and raised potential liability concerns for which we were unprepared. While the terms and conditions of a ticket purchase for YOUtopia require the direct and responsible supervision of minors at the event, we have not yet defined the specific consequences of a failure to do so, when law enforcement should be notified, etc. Resolution of this policy and procedure gap is essential during the 2018 production cycle. While we anticipate that the consequence of repeated/egregious violation will be asking participants to leave the event, we need a clearly defined SOP in order to routinize this process and also a management solution for caring for “found minors”. One suggestion has been that – like Burning Man – we establish a respite center for found minors staffed by a certified child care professional and we will be exploring this and other options with the Board (given potential liability concerns) and 2018 Producers.
Rangers: The Rangers team performed exceptionally well on the mountain this year. Solid staffing, experienced Khakis and a collaborative attitude with the production team generally (and Security in particular) allowed us to deploy and redeploy Rangers to hot-spots on demand. As just one example, we had a serious situation with an excessive number of unattended cars creating congestion and blocking emergency roads on Thursday night. The Content team had been working for hours to identify participants belonging to the problem vehicles and trying to get them to move, but the problem was continuing to escalate, traffic into the area had to be stopped and gate began to backup. Stress was high and tempers were flaring. We deployed 3 Ranger teams to the problem area and within under an hour they had identified the relevant participants, persuaded them to move the cars and flow could resume. They provided a critical shift in tone and energy, not only “solving the problem” but restoring the peace and supporting the production team and participants with compassion and understanding that was sorely needed, allowing all to return to their other pressing tasks.
Unfortunately, over the last several years the relationship between the Rangers community and YOUtopia has been inconsistent. The San Diego Region does not currently have a strong Ranger sub-community and it has become apparent that this is not something that we can force into existence from above, but rather is something that must evolve and grow organically due to the desire of local Rangers to develop one. This years Rangers Leads recruited primarily from out of region and were fortunate to find an amazing crew, but we didn’t know until very close to the event what our staffing levels would be and integrated planning was difficult as a result and event-site training was non-existent for most Rangers.
Since we don’t currently have a strong local Rangers team (or a reasonable expectation of acquiring one soon) we need to seek alternatives to our current model – which worked out well this year but is still more or less based on hopes it will work out at the last minute. While multiple suggestions have been made we believe the most promising path is to approach neighboring BM communities who do have well established Ranger teams to partner with us (and potentially jump starting our own community building). This will be a serious effort for 2018.
Outside Partners: One of the ongoing success stories in the Safety Hub has been our relationship with our outside partners (tribal fire, L.E.O., and campground staff) and we are pleased to report that our relationship continues to deepen and grow. Communications between the event and our partners are smooth and trusting. Representatives from LEO and Tribal Fire were at our daily safety meetings (fire missed one meeting due to being dispatched to assist with a small local wildfire) and a constructive and collaborative dialogue was standard. In addition, Campground staff once again were incredibly helpful and responsive to requests we made.
Mentorship: The final highlight of this years Safety Hub was the opportunity to work with Ben Thompson from BMORG’s Emergency Services Department. Ben has been on the ESD team for over 20 years and has held numerous front-line and leadership positions on the team. This summer, one of our Hub Leads had the opportunity to mentor with Ben at Burning Man as part their Regionals Mentorship Program. That learning experience was invaluable, and as luck would have it Ben agreed to come to YOUtopia to ride-along with our Safety Hub Leads and offer an audit of our safety operations. For 24 hours during the event Ben did what we did, explored the entire event site, and had the opportunity to see the full range of challenges we face. His support was an incredible gift and his feedback – both on strengths and opportunities – confirmed our self-assessment and galvanized us to take action on a couple of key fronts.
In particular, we plan to:
1) address the challenge of lost parents,
2) hire a type 6 fire truck and crew (hopefully through the Tribal Fire department to support our existing relationship) to be staged on-site, and
3) do a lot more off-season work on team building to expand and make our team more robust.
What stood out the most for us, however were these words of Ben’s with which we’ll close… he’s said it best… and it’s a big part of why we’re proud to be leaders on the YOUtopia Safety team.
“When I think about an event the first priority is commitment, by the organizers, to public safety. That commitment comes in financial and philosophical support. The commitment to fully finance safety and bake it into all levels of planning is the key to success. You folks have done that. As I look over the map, the hand outs, the set up, and hear of the relationships you’ve developed with the landowners, it’s exactly what I’ve talked about at the GLC. The character of an event comes from the top down. If public safety is a priority it’s apparent all the way through, right down to the participants; you’ve got that in abundance.”