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ACL Fest, city work together on event safety; heat remains big concern

Peter Mongillo
Rachel Rehm pours water on her head during 2007's Austin City Limits Music Festival. Organizers will increase the water dispensers available this year.

When it comes to outdoor music shows, the summer of 2011 has been a grim one, with stage collapses at three festivals leading to injuries and deaths. During a July performance by Cheap Trick at a blues festival in Ottawa, Ontario, a stage collapse during a storm caused several audience injuries. At the Indiana State Fair in August, high winds toppled a stage, killing six people; days later, a stage collapse in Belgium during the annual Pukkelpop Festival killed five.

These incidents (and a non-deadly collapse Aug. 6 at a Tulsa, Okla., festival) were all caused by sudden weather, but they haven't stopped people from going to festivals and aren't going to keep people from the Austin City Limits Music Festival in just over two weeks.

Jason Maurer, special events manager for the parks department, said although it's impossible to predict freak weather, part of the problem with recent collapses is that people weren't moved away from stages when weather happened.

"Weather can do funny things; we know that," he said. "What you do when that happens is what matters."

If Austin is hit by a violent storm during the weekend of Sept. 16-18, the City of Austin parks department, which works with festival promoters C3 Presents to ensure that the Zilker Park event runs safely, says it's ready with an "incident command" center that monitors any incoming storms and a plan to clear areas that might pose a danger.

Severe weather is not completely out of the question for ACL weekend — the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration predicts 14 to 19 named Atlantic storms through October — but the main concern remains heat. After a summer of record-breaking temperatures, including a record-tying high of 112 on Sunday, relief is in sight. The National Weather Service's September forecast for Central Texas offers the possibility of non-triple-digit temperatures after Labor Day and an increased chance for rain. The 90s are still hot, though.

"The most frightening thing right now is people coming out and allowing themselves to get into a situation where they've had too much to drink and can't handle the heat," Maurer said. He urges people to wear hats and appropriate clothing and to take advantage of free shuttle buses to and from the event in order to stay cool and conserve energy.

Acknowledging the possibility of extreme heat at the festival, C3 has increased its focus on attendees keeping cool and hydrated, two keys to avoiding heat stroke. "We have added additional medical personnel who will be on the lookout for early signs of heat exhaustion in patrons," C3 marketing director Lisa Hickey said. ACL will provide three free water filling stations with an increased number of dispensers at each, an additional misting system and new shade structures totaling about 6,000 square feet of shade.

A medical center at the park will be available to deal with any heat-related injuries. Like the weather-monitoring center, the medical tent is part of a comprehensive plan developed by the city with C3 and worked on throughout the year. Other considerations in the plan include off-duty police officers working the festival, fire safety and trucks at the park, street closures, and permits and health inspections for food vendors. The plan also includes communication with neighborhoods around the park. Although the plan is tweaked following each year's festival — this year's is expected to be finalized by the end of the week — Maurer said that it hasn't changed dramatically over the course of the festival's existence.

He said that two of the highest-profile problems — a fire in 2007, caused by a propane tank in a vendor's vehicle, that injured four and rain in 2009 that turned Zilker into a mud pit — were handled well.

"Someone had brought an overfilled propane tank to the festival. It's not a scenario (ACL staff) could have controlled, but it was responded to well," Maurer said.

As for the mud, Maurer said a turf expert from the city monitored the condition of the grass throughout the weekend to ensure that allowing the festival to continue would not damage the park permanently. "We were out there watching what that mud was doing and made a decision, and weeks later, look where it was, back and shining again, because we had the folks there to make the right decisions at the right time."

(Additional information from staff writer Joe Gross.)

Briefly. Country legend Loretta Lynn recently had knee surgery, and her September show at ACL Live is being moved to Feb. 17. Existing tickets will be honored; the show is not sold out. ... Long Island music fan Liam McCann reports that Gary Clark Jr. wowed a celebrity-sprinkled crowd at Stephen Talkhouse in Amagansett last week in the Hamptons. McCann says the audience, which included Paul McCartney and daughter Stella, Anjelica Huston, Roger Waters and Jon Bon Jovi, gave the Austin guitar phenom more than one standing ovation. Clark also posed for a photo with McCartney and Rogers. Clark plays Sept. 16 at ACL Fest, as well as an official after-show that night at Antone's.