"This Is How We Always Do It" Is Not Good Enough
Touring personnel have been going to outdoor venues for decades facing outdoor conditions that include scaffold staging and roof systems. During this time there have been incidents and accidents but they were few and far between. Usually, the reports would come from some third-world country and all of us who heard them would gasp and murmur that they had been at the same venue and were wondering when it would happen--the roof coming down due to weather conditions. Here in North America we have seen ourselves as above this, until the last few years.
Texas Stadium and Garth Brooks brought the first notable US example of the fragility of these systems. (Editor’s Note: If you look up Texas Stadium and Garth Brooks on Google most of what you find is glowing reports of his multi-day run there which ended up as a concert DVD. You have to dig further or have been around to remember that on Sept. 17, 1993 just before that run began, a truss system collapsed and injured 15 crew members.) While tours would still go into venues using self-supporting roof systems, there was a new perspective and diligence to ensure safety including double checking the ratings and weight compliance. We began to feel safe and collapses were once again something that we would hear about in third-world situations.
But, on the past month there have been at least five incidents in the U.S. and Canada starting with the collapse at the Ottawa BluesFest...
plus another show in Canada by Honeymoon Suite and one in Tulsa, OK on a Flaming Lips show where no one was injured...
and including the death of a video company owner crushed by a falling video monitor on load out in Santa Barbara, Calif. The horrific collapse in Indiana on August 13 killed five people--including one crew member, 51-year old IATSE Local 30 member Nathan Byrd who was in the roof structure at a follow spot position when the wind hit and took the stage down.
WHAT’S GOING ON?
I have been a rigger for nearly two decades, I went the old route doing a seven-year apprenticeship working in the shop and doing shows, projects and tours that got bigger as I met benchmarks of learning. Having had a personal incident with scaffold at the age of 14, I have been especially wary of the installation and use of it.
There are some fundamentals we all learn...
Guy wire--noun--A cable, wire, or rope that is used to brace something.
There are varying definitions yet they all come to the same conclusion, guy wires are used to brace against pressure. I am sure that all of us have seen these in use in one way or another, at the circus as a child or on telephone poles as we pass them on the street.
Speaking with some of my peers about the recent number of incidents, I have thought myself and heard a recurring question “where were the guy wires?” I am not a structural engineer and I cannot speak to engineering issues. However, I have rigged many outdoor structures and stages. One of my biggest complaints has consistently been guy wires on outdoor systems. Whether completely missing or woefully inadequate there seems to be something missing in their use.
Going back to the days of Supertowers, there were many venues that provided appropriate method of using guy wires and ballast. Most self-supporting systems have provisions for guy wires from the mast head. In addition, I was also taught that if you have a heavy load or are in an area that is susceptible to weather you put additional bracing directly on the roof, and on the towers at approximately 2/3rd the height of your mast and that you always ensure that your guy cables are adequate or, better, over-rated.
Too often I see 1/8th inch come-a longs used as guy wires or as part of the ballast system, I personally would not use a $20 come-a-long in such an application.
Safety is everyone’s responsibility “we done that way for years and never had a problem” is NOT a good guide, doing things wrong for a lifetime without an accident is a sign of luck and fortune, not the basis for engineering!
There is a need for total cooperation between the tour, the vendor, the local labor, production, promoters, and even the paying public the ensure safety. No one I have spoken to thinks you have a 100% certainty of preventing all stage collapses, but we can work together to ensure the least possible chance of catastrophe.
Last summer in Dallas I was hanging a lighting and sound system from an outdoor stage. I was not happy with the guy wire and x bracing so talked with the local rigger and equipment vendor to voice my concerns. When I would not take “no action” as acceptable, we started adding extra bracing.
During this process, the audio dept started to raise the PA on both sides of the stage simultaneously, despite the fact that I had asked them not to do this as I saw what I considered a flaw that had danger of causing a collapse. Ignoring my request, the PA continued to rise. At one point, the two PA hangs started to swing in unison causing the entire roof to twist and rotate. This ripped the guy wire we were working on out of our hands and put stress on the entire roof. What was most frightening is this happened with only about a third of the PA weight hanging, if there had been full weight I am certain there would have been a failure. Once we installed the extra bracing, the structure was substantial and all deflection was within tolerance and the hang felt safe.
All the videos, pictures and accounts of the Ottawa and Indiana incidents seem to show that these roofs are not collapsing in place as if tethered properly by guy wires. Rather, they show the entire structure shifting and actually moving.
Adequate guy wires will never 100% guarantee that a catastrophe won’t happen but they can and will do the their job--hold fast, delay the inevitable in a bad situation allowing time for persons to escape, and add strength to minimize side movement.
Remember, all the banners, backdrops and roof tarps are just big sails in the wind. While I have not personally inspected any of the incidents of recent news, they all appear from the pictures and videos I have seen to have similar characteristics--a total lack of or use of inadequate guy-wire bracing, Investing a few hundred dollars in equipment, and a couple extra hours of rigging labor may just put an end to this current crisis of collapses.
Royal Jensen has been a touring professional for nearly 30 years. Going back as the original employee for Light and Sound Design USA he bgan a transition into rigging in 1989 and did a7 year apprenticeship with Phil Burke Rigging. Royal has a varied touring experience working with everything from Lollapalooza to magicians, his credits including Tony Hawk tours as well as many concert tours. His rigging has involved the fling and support of many effects and human aerialist. He has also tours as a production manager and tour manager. Royal can be contacted via SoundProLive should you want connect with him.