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'It was monumental': 2011 State Fair tragedy's impact on public safety

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Posted at 5:00 AM, Aug 13, 2021
and last updated 2021-08-19 16:54:22-04

INDIANAPOLIS — The Indiana State Fair tragedy on Aug. 13, 2011, was a game-changer when it comes to public safety, especially at large outdoor events that have to take into account severe weather.

Seven people died and more than 40 were injured 10 years ago when high winds toppled rigging and sent the roof of the stage onto fans waiting for the start of a concert at the State Fairgrounds.

WRTV Investigates spoke with local, state, and national leaders about what’s changed over the past decade, and if we are really any safer.

“It was monumental”: Changes to the event industry after the 2011 tragedy

An international group, the Event Safety Alliance, was created in direct response to the state fair incident.

“It was monumental,” said Steve Adelman, vice president of the Event Safety Alliance.

Adelman said the Event Safety Alliance deconstructed what went wrong at the fairgrounds, and produced a safety guide for the nation’s event industry.

"It's more than 350 pages of robust guidance,” said Adelman. “The guiding principle is life safety first. Everyone is familiar with ‘the show must go on,’ but the Event Safety Alliance is pushing back on exactly that. Life safety should come first."

The guide also focuses on improved communication, to make sure decision-makers are getting the facts.

“That was one of the key problems,” said Adelman. “There was accurate meteorologist information on-site at the State Fair, it just didn’t reach the right people. There was a disconnect between the folks who understood basic meteorological science and the ones who had to use that information.”

The Witt report, which reviewed the 2011 collapse for the state, revealed, "At 8:39 p.m., the National Weather Service issued a severe weather warning for the area."

But the report showed the fair’s leadership never received the information.

An announcement told fans that threatening weather was approaching but Sugarland was coming out shortly.

A spokesperson for the Indiana State Fair at the time said they were about to evacuate.

“We were on our way to the grandstand and within three minutes to make that announcement that this isn't' just a suggestion that we are evacuating the grandstand and within that time, that's when that undetectable or straight-line wind weather phenomena occurred and hit the grandstand stage and brought it down,” said Andy Klotz, a spokesperson for the Indiana State Fair in 2011.

The guidance for the event industry is now much clearer when it comes to steps for responding to severe weather.

"We have an entire section on what we call severe weather trigger charts so that the decisions become automatic rather than having to think it through,” said Adelman.

The Indiana State Fair now contracts with a professional weather vendor to monitor weather development 24/7 during the State Fair event.

State changes how entertainment structures are inspected

The 2011 tragedy also prompted improvements regarding how entertainment structures are designed, constructed, and inspected in Indiana.

The Indiana Department of Homeland Security is tasked with inspecting stage setups and does 5,000 inspections a year.

"The structure has to be installed according to the plans laid out by the manufacturer,” said IDHS executive director Steve Cox. “The anchoring systems and guiding systems have be to applied appropriately. Electrical systems have to be applied according to code."

Indiana Department of Homeland Security executive director Steve Cox explained the state made changes shortly after the 2011 tragedy to ensure the safety of structures at large venues.

In 2017, those rules became permanent.

"That allows the Department of Homeland Security's inspectors to go in and make sure those inspections take place,” said Cox. “Emergency response plans have to be developed by those venues to make sure plans are in place to evacuate crowds of people to make sure safety is at the forefront of everybody's minds."

Cox emphasized if a venue is unsafe, IDHS will not grant a permit until the issue is correct.

Cox said we are safer now than we were a decade ago.

“Yes, I would say that,” said Cox. “The building codes are continually being looked at for continuous improvement. We want Hoosiers to feel safe any time they attend an event of any size."

Parks continue to monitor severe weather for outdoor events

Indy Parks puts on 70 free summer concerts and movies a year.

Indy Parks Property and Risk Manager Matt Abplanalp said they plan for high winds, lightning, tornadoes and other safety threats.

"We look at it days in advance, we look at it the day of, obviously hours in advance and we make a call to say hey this isn't going to work,” said Abplanalp.

The 2011 tragedy is something Indy Parks leaders take into account when planning and making judgment calls.

"It was a tragic event,” said Abplanalp. “We obviously evaluate every situation to see how can we be better."

State Fair makes additional changes to improve safety

At the state fairgrounds, concerts are no longer held in the grandstand.

The State Fair made the decision following 2011 not to use temporary roof structures over the stage so concerts were shifted to the permanent Free Stage.

The entertainment at the Free Stage has become a key fixture of the Indiana State Fair experience.

The Indiana State Fair now uses a texting system to alert staff of weather updates, and each building has a staff member onsite specifically designated to direct guests to shelter in the event of severe weather.

They also use the fairgrounds PA system to warn guests of impending weather and direct them where to go in the event of weather or other threatening situation.

State Fair leadership staff and safety personnel are also trained in National Incident Management Systems — which is considered the gold standard by the Department of Homeland Security for safety preparedness and prevention practices.

The fair adopted the training as a standard practice in 2012 and the organization has remained diligent about being NIMS certified, according to state spokesperson Stephanie McFarland.

“Additionally, state-fair leadership, operational and safety staff meet six times per year to coordinate with emergency-management agencies to discuss, plan and address matters related to safety for general operations, events on the property and the annual State Fair,” said McFarland in an email to WRTV. “Also, the Witt report recommended the State Fair have one safety officer on staff. Today, the commission has three on staff — in addition to a chief operations officer who is directly responsible for safety planning and prevention.”

During the State Fair event itself, staff conducts a daily safety meeting to review the day’s event action plan, with safety at the core of that collaboration.

“These meetings are crucial for planning for the general operations and particulars of each day’s Fair events and activities and being prepared to address any threatening situations that could occur,” said McFarland in an email to WRTV. “This has been a practice since 2012. In addition, all volunteers and vendor employees who work at the Indiana State Fair event are required to complete safety training.”

Companies create new tools to help improve communication during emergencies

Businesses and government agencies throughout the state are also turning to improved technology to keep you safe in the event of an emergency.

Layered Solutions is a mass notification software company that contracts with businesses and government agencies.

VP of Sales Rick Wagner said they use various avenues to communicate an emergency to employees including texting, PA systems, phone systems, and even taking over TV screens and computer screens.

"Community spaces, schools, churches, healthcare, large venue vents have some kind of signage and we can push whatever kind of content they want from a visual and audible perspective,” said Wagner.

The company can change the message depending on the type of emergency such as a tornado or active shooter.

Layered Solutions can also add sensors and cameras to a building.

"We've actually tied into a shot detection system,” said Wagner as he demonstrated the notification system. “Not only do you know where a shot is detected. You have a live feed of exactly what is going on."

Layered Solutions is not a client of Layered Solutions, and the company didn’t exist in 2011.

Wagner said communication technology has improved greatly in the last decade.

“I think it's become more streamlined and more simplified,” said Wagner.

You can also take the following steps to protect yourself.

How To Protect Yourself

  • Have a safety plan for your family
  • Know what you will do during an emergency, including severe weather and active shooter
  • Plan where you will meet if you get separated from your friends or family
  • Find out where the exits are
  • Keep an eye on the weather, using your eyes, ears and a weather app
  • Listen and adhere to all safety announcements
  • If you hear thunder, immediately move to a safe shelter for at least 30 minutes