Event Security: "Only make 'new' mistakes"

Jim Digby, co-founder and president of the Event Safety Alliance, is one of the keynote speakers at the Event Safety Day. In this episode he shares how being at the wrong place at the right time, seeing many things on events going wrong, helpt him re-shaping safety at events.

Kevin Van der Straeten
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Hi Jim, welcome to the studio.

Good morning Kevin.

Nice to have you, Jim. You will be speaking, in a couple of weeks, at the Event Safety Day. And that's because you have a quite extensive background in what concerns safety.

But it's not what you were actually doing from the beginning of your career.

Yes, that's right Kevin, I come to the live event sector from a lifelong journey of working behind the scenes.

Even from the time I was a young child. I have been working behind the scenes the entire time. So, that's some four decades now that I've been out in the field. Producing live shows and touring with artists and doing special events.

If I read on some profiles and articles I found on you, you worked with very big names during your career.

I've been fortunate. I've had a very good ride.

I started young with Genesys. And then Phil Collins and Bon Jovi.

And at some point I transitioned from doing technical work to stage management work. And then from that to production management work with artists like Hootie & the Blowfish and, most notably, Linkin Park for almost the entire day of their journey. I went to work with them right after the end of their first record cycle and staid with them until Chester's untimely death.

And how, Jim, does one come from being involved in production to someone leading an alliance in event safety?

That's a really good question, Kevin. Had I known how difficult that journey would be, I might have made a different choice. But you know, I think what motivates us, as humans, is what our experience in life has been. And, you know, this is true for me with respect to safety.

As I entered my professional career, in 1983, the very first place I worked was a large format nightclub. That was under construction, outside of Philadelphia's. So, it was meant to rival Studio 54. Many people know about Studio 54 in New York. And on the grand opening... I was a technician there. And on the grand opening night, the press opening, it was sold out. 2.500 people in the room. And this is '83 now, remember. So, this place had a twenty-two foot diameter spaceship, that tracked out from over the audience's head. And it delivered a robot onto the floor that danced with the audience.

On the grand opening moment, the big reveal of the spaceship, I heard a scream, not far from where I was working in the DJ booth. And turned to see that a very large lighting fixture had left the ceiling. And came down and went through the skull of a girl who was standing just outside the DJ booth where I was operating the equipment. She died. I was also a volunteer firefighter at the time and I had attempted to help.

I was the one operating that lighting fixture when it came off the end of the track. And what turns out to have been the truth around the circumstance, was that the contractors had rushed to completion. And they hadn't put the safety mechanisms in. There was meant to be a steel welded plate at the end of the track. There were meant to be switches that turned off the drive motor from this big device. And those things hadn't been installed. Only a temporary measure was installed. When the device hit the end of the track, it went off and it went straight down through this girl's head. So, that laid in some foundational scar tissue to me at nineteen years old.


And then, of course, the next series of events that occurred, we starting enacting safety practices. Every night we checked everything. Every night we ran it to the maximum limits. So, up and down, and left and right. And these safety practices came into play and were essential after the fact.

After the fact. I then left that job, a few years later and went to work for Disney World in Orlando, where I was doing pyrotechnics, fireworks and lasers. So, two highly safety regarded job skills. And this still was in the eighties. So, you know, the training and safety around Disney is significant. They really invested in safety. Even then. So, this layered on some more safety conversation.

And then, through a weird twist of faith, throughout my journey as a professional production person, I was, in 1992, on the stage as a video technician with Guns 'n' Roses.

Sorry, a Guns 'n' Roses and Metallica concert. In Montreal at the Olympic stadium. Where James Hetfield accidentally set himself on fire over the flamewarder. And then couldn't finish the show. So, Axl could've come out and done his show and save the day. And as it turned out, he didn't do that. He threw his microphone on the stage. And he yelled at the audience and he walked off the stage. And 55.000 people rioted. So, I witnessed that, I was in that moment. And that laid in more scar tissue.

And then: jump to 1999. And I was one of four stage managers on the Woodstock stage. When 200.000 people rioted. So, yet another moment of scar tissue.

And then I was working with Marilyn Manson. When the Columbine shootings occurred. And that caused great pain and some rioting as well around those shows.

So, throughout my professional journey, I had these highlights where that scar tissue from 1983 was tugged on.

And then, finally, in 2011, when the Indiana State Fair stage collapse happened, in Indiana, and killed seven people...

I wasn't a part of that event but it tore open that scar tissue. And I had been motivated from that point to try to do something. As were many around me and around the industry wanting to do something. And that's the journey that gets to...

The seminal moment of that stage collapse. From there, there were some phone calls where, you know, one professional was calling another professional. And two professionals were talking to each other. And finally we had this, kind of, spontaneous collection of individuals, concerned about what had occurred in Indiana. With a desire to do something about it. And that's the launch into the safety component.

I'll pause. Because that's a lot.

I do understand where you're coming from.

Now that you're working actively to make the event industry a more safe place, what is, in your opinion, the biggest challenge for the industry? Is it because we're rushing things too hard? And don't pay attention enough?

Yes, it's a good question, Kevin. And I think we're surrounded by challenges. And pre-coded we were able to identify many of those challenges. To a point where we were working on them actively. We are working on them actively.

You know, prior to the Event Safety Alliance in North-America, there was no written guide for safety in a live event production. Well, the Event Safety Alliance accomplished that. We published the first Event Safety Guide. For the industry. It was out in 2014. We did so with the help of the UK's purple guide and some good friends from the UK.


You know, at that time we were addressing the issues that caused the Indiana State Fare. Which, if you were to study the forensic reports from that, you would see that, you know, there were structural defects. And there were planning defects. And there were operational defects in communication. And there was a weather challenge. So, we dissected those things. And looked at the industry in the way we deal with those things.

And: are we good planners? Or: are we able to set up a crisis response plan that's actionable?

We weren't doing those things as an industry, in 2011. We each had our own mechanism for checking on the weather. We each had our own mechanism for communicating our intentions with respect to weather. And there was no clear-cut guidance for how we would respond to a weather threat, for instance.

Because in the US, there is no standardized inspection process  from authority inspections. We have our own self-imposed needs to go to a standard. But there's no standardized inspection process.

We have a multitude of things that could have been improved in 2011. Going wrong to some extent, in 2011. And then we had things like the Christina Grimmie artist death, shortly after that. Then we had purposed nightclub shootings shortly after that. And then we had Bataclan and Manchester. And Pukkelpop. Or was it Pinkpop?

Pukkelpop, yes.

Yes, Pukkelpop.


We had the Radiohead incident in Canada. All of these new mistakes that were occurring after the Event Safety Alliance formed. And our guidance and our subject matter expert base had to grow larger as time went on. To address these new mistakes. And now, here we are two years after Covid. Which has, kind of, turned on other new mistakes that we're making right now.

Where we have an exhausted workforce because the people who hold the money are putting every show they possibly can into market at the same time. About 30% of the workforce...

That number comes from conversation around the industry. About 30% of our workforce has left the industry and will never come back. And with them left a lot of legacy knowledge. As an industry, we don't value professional designation. Except in two areas, in the US especially, and that's electricity and rigging. But there's no professional designations for leadership. No professional acumen that you have to demonstrate to be a leader in the live event space.

And therefore, you're not asked to really know about safety. You're not asked to really do anything for safety. And you don't have to demonstrate your skills for safety in our industry. Which is ridiculous.

Yes and especially because you mention the leaders. Those are the ones that play a key role when something happens. They need to coordinate.

That's exactly right. And, you know, if there's good news to be had out of Sugarland, the size, the advent of the Event Safety Alliance, and this coalition of people who want to see us do better, it's that the main failure at, one of the main failures at Sugarland, was that there was a lack of an actionable plan. That's something we can do something about.

You know, we can't change the weather. But we sure as heck put an actionable plan in place. So, it's on that premise, and again related to weather, because it's something we can all wrap our heads around. It's on that premise that we see: actionable plans are the solution. Or a big part of the solution, going forward. Whether that's a person wanting to do bad things at our event site. Whether that's an active shooter. Whether that's weather. Whether that's a crowd crush. It can all be addressed early on in the planning process.

The strategy for avoiding a crowd crush can be identified early on in the planning process, should be.

And then the mechanisms to subvert that or to go around that, should be identified in the planning process, as well. And then implement it. The challenge we have is getting the stakeholders to buy into that. The people who hold the money, you know: are they willing to make that investment in both the humanomics around the show and their reputation around the show.

I always ask speakers in our show to prepare a few bullet-points. You also did that. And your second bullet was: make new mistakes.

Now, with what I heard from you before, I would have thought you would say: don't make mistakes anymore. But nevertheless you said: make new mistakes. Is that because, by making new mistakes, you stay alert? You learn new things and we can keep improving things?

Yes, it's the antitheses of: don't make an old mistake, right? Or let's not repeat a mistake. One of the things that we see, is that the only thing...

This is someone else's phrase: the only thing we learn from the past is that we don't learn from the past. And I think the positive call-out for us as event producers, is to not repeat the same old mistakes. Let's not have the stage collapse. Let's not set fireworks off in a venue that doesn't...

Without a license, without the preparation, without a fire marshal in.

Let's not do these things. Let's not cause people to lose their lives. In ways that we've already that and we should know better.

So, for me, making new mistakes is: let's continue to explore the boundaries of how well we can plan. And then, if there's a mistake that occurs in that journey, we go: ah, okay, well there's another one that we can check-off the box and plan for. So that we don't make it again. Hopefully those mistakes get smaller in their outcomes and their consequences as time goes on.

Indeed. You also said that the most effective safety culture is: human first.

What do you mean with that?

Well, you know, I don't believe that our environment of producing shows regards the humanomics, the human first, as a priority. I really don't. I think, if you look at the work force, you look at the way we do shows, from the show producer on down. We're working twelve to eighteen to more hours a day. We're going from one city to the next if it's a music tour. Or we're going from one event to the next. We're constantly drawing down the human spirit, the human rest factor, the mental wellness. And the things that cause us to be super-sharp and super-alert and super-situationally aware.

And I'm not suggesting that we'll ever be able to do shows with less than a long workday. But if we treat the human condition with respect and we make sure that, where we can, we're putting in adequate rest, we're putting in adequate fuel, we're giving moments for mindfulness, we're considering the human, who is the major muscle behind producing an event, as a priority, then I think we make fewer mistakes.


Typically, what I see with a lot of new event planners coming to the scene, is: they always look at the happy flows. How it should go. But never look enough at: what could go wrong? Where do we need to anticipate? Is that also a part of how you look at events? Think more, upfront, of...

I think it certainly is now.

It wasn't who I was before Sugarland. Before the Indiana State Fare collapse. Before 1983. You know, with each incident that's either been proximate to my sight-line or I've been a part of, I've become more desired to not making my own mistakes, right? So, I then try to think through the strategy for: what am I missing? What could go wrong? How do I plan for that too? Is there a strategy for it?

You know, I myself am not a safety expert. I don't profess to be a safety expert. I care about humans, you know, as we all do. And I care about going forward in the business. And I think I care about our business going forward. We have to be more attuned to the planning process, which opens up the conversation about what could go wrong.

You know: I have an artist that's going to be flying over the audience. A lot of thought needs to go into what could go wrong with an artist flying over the audience. And people who are really perfectional about doing that, should invest in the time it takes to make sure they thought about all the things, the old mistakes, that could go wrong. And new ones that might go wrong. And plan for it.

You're in the industry for quite a while. If you would talk to somebody who's just entering the industry. What would be the one advise you want to share with them?

I think: education is key. And self-care is key. I don't know that you can share a soundbite to energize a new person in the right direction. It is the most exciting business in the world if you ask me.

You took the greatest opportunity. With the greatest opportunity to see the world and see other cultures. And, you know, expand your brain while you're expanding your opportunities. And I think, if you stay focused on the job and not the ego and not the glitz and the glamour, but the joy of just doing the work, you'll go long and, hopefully, healthy and safely.

All right.

Jim, thank you for your time and joining our show. I wish you all the best of luck with your presentation on the Event Safety Day. We will put the links to the book, the Event Safety Alliance and the event in the show notes.

So, thank you for joining us.

Thank you, Kevin, I appreciate you asking.

And you, at home, thank you for watching our show. I hope to see you next week.