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4/22/2012 10:46:00 AM
County, community fair organizers await new safety rules

Maureen Hayden, Tribune-Star CNHI Statehouse Bureau Chief

TERRE HAUTE — State officials charged with making outdoor stage concerts safer for patrons are engaged in a balancing act: They’re trying to write rules to prevent another tragedy like the one at last year’s Indiana State Fair without over-regulating small town festivals and county fairs.

The legal staff at the Indiana Department of Homeland Security is drafting new emergency rules that would cover the kind of temporary stage rigging that collapsed at the State Fair last August, killing seven people attending a Sugarland concert.

The new emergency rules, triggered by legislation carried by state Sen. Tim Lanane, a Democrat from Anderson, won’t just cover the State Fair grounds; they’ll cover other outdoor venues that uses similar equipment, including some county fairs and festivals.

Exactly what those rules will look like, and how expensive they’ll be to follow, is still unknown. They’ll require inspections of the kind of equipment rigging structure that collapsed at the State Fair, and may require event organizers to pay for an engineer- designed and approved plan for those structures.

Homeland Security officials hope to have a draft of the emergency rules by early May so fair and festival organizers around the state will know what they’re facing when those rules go into effect July 1.

There’s some anxiety until they do. Steve Patterson, director of administration for the Indiana Association of Fairs, Festivals and Events, said some of his members are worried they won’t be able to meet or afford the new safety standards. He said some have held off booking outdoor concerts or hiring the contractors that put up the temporary equipment rigging that will be regulated for the first time under the new rules.

“Public safety is critical. It’s the most important thing to us,” Patterson said. “But for us, it’s the unknown right now that worries us. We’re not sure what the new rules are going to say.”

David Hannum, a Terre Haute engineer and president of the state Fire and Building Safety Commission charged with approving the new emergency rules, said there is a fear among some fair and festival organizers that there will be “regulatory over-reach.”

But Hannum said the intent of rule-makers isn’t to put the hundreds of fairs and festivals in Indiana out of business. “We don’t want to over-regulate, but we want to make sure everybody is safe,” he said. “Sometimes that’s a hard balance to strike but it shouldn’t be too hard in this case.”

The legislation authored by Lanane set up a summer study committee to come up with permanent rules for regulating the kind of stage rigging that collapsed last August at the State Fair after high wind gusts blew through the fairgrounds.

The legislation also set up a process for emergency rule-making, giving the Fire and Building Safety Commission authority to pass new regulations that can be put into place temporarily. The commission will conduct public hearings on the emergency rules.

Both Hannum and Lanane said commission members are sensitive to the impact that new regulations, especially those that cost thousands of dollars to comply with, could have on county fairs and festivals that offer entertainment venues much smaller than those offered at the State Fair.

“We don’t want to shut them down,” Lanane said. “We’re not talking about small stages where the local dance troupe performs. We’re talking about the much larger structures that have tons of equipment hanging overhead.”

The anxiety on the part of local fairs and festivals may be exacerbated by the confusion over what the new rules will cover, Hannum said.

Some media reports have incorrectly reported the new rules are for temporary outdoor stages. But temporary outdoor stages are already regulated by Indiana law, Hannum said. The state Fire Marshal’s office routinely inspects temporary outdoor stages that are set up at fairs and festivals around Indiana. They do so as part of permitting process already in place.

“So a great number of events across the state will see no impact at all (from the new rules),” Hannum said. “They’re already covered.”

Hannum said what the new rules will regulate is the kind of temporary, overhead rigging structure that collapsed at the State Fair grounds. A report released April 12 by engineering and safety experts hired by the state found the rigging structure “used to support speakers and lighting” didn’t meet industry safety standards for high winds.

Because the overhead rigging was “structurally independent” from the stage on which it was sitting, it wasn’t inspected under current law. The new rules will change that.

Lanane acknowledged the emergency rules may appear to some to be rushed into place, but he said the process allows them to be reviewed and modified if needed. “The reality is there wasn’t an adequate inspection process in place before,” said Lanane. “We don’t want to risk a repeat of what happened last year at the State Fair.”

Related Stories:
• State steps up efforts on stage safety at fairs and festivals

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