Fluid Situation

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Amid the hype, a critical angle was ignored

The consensus: most everyone had a great time at Salmon Fest, but had a hell of a time staying hydrated.

My opinion: the organizers of Salmon Fest got greedy, away too greedy, and screwed up big-time, infringing basic human rights and endangering thousands of people in sweltering 30-degree temperatures.

CBC has a story about it here: http://www.cbc.ca/news/canada/newfoundland-labrador/story/2013/07/14/nl-salmon-festival-water-problems-714.html

The Telegram, NTV and VOCM are also following the story and it was a lively topic of discussion on Monday morning’s Open Line.

The night before the concert, I could see that problems were going to unfold, though none of the media were asking tough questions about it. Yes, there was a lot of cheerleading – the media really sucked up to this event – but precious little probing about how concert organizers planned to care for 25,000 people in 30-degree heat.

Yes, newscasters repeatedly reminded us to “stay hydrated.” And there was an interview on CBC with someone whose name I forget, who told us to bring plenty of cash to buy water, food and anything else required at the venue. That’s the closest we came to any foreshadowing of this fiasco, and when I heard it alarm bells went off. If a few concession stands were going to be the sole providers of H2O for so many people on one of the hottest days of the year, well, that was a recipe for disaster. 

On Friday evening, I posted this update to Facebook:

“I bet some of you are attending Salmon Festival on Saturday. I'm looking for some citizen journalists to let me know how it’s going. If you're up for that, please message me directly. And stay safe!”

I received several responses from people, all willing to send texts and emails during the concert. By concert time the next day, I was in contact with five different people – two in the VIP section, and three in general admission – and it was eerie to observe, in real time, how events spiraled out of control. 

I will offer a few of the more pointed messages below. There were complaints about the high prices for bottled water and food, lack of toilet paper in the porta-potties (which quickly became messy and gross) and over-selling of tickets in VIP section, but the truly critical issue was water supply. It quickly became apparent that organizers were grossly unprepared to deliver that water when people needed it the most. 

The first sign of trouble came at 4:22 pm, with this note: 

“Ran out of water already!”

At 5:41 pm came this:

“The beer and VIP tents ran out of water. As a result, the main water line now consists of about 500.”

I was incredulous. Did they have it right – 500 people lined up for water? 

“At least,” was the reply. “I’ve been here since 5:25 pm and not even halfway there. They ran out. More has come in.”

And on it went. At 6:30 pm, an update:

“Only one station for water. The average wait is 90 minutes.”

I asked how long each band appeared on stage. The answer was about 90 minutes. So it was possible to get in line for water as a band was taking to the stage, and not get back to your spot until they had finished. But that’s just an annoyance. Safety is really the key factor here. And all my contacts on the ground were unanimous on two points: that concertgoers should have been permitted to bring their own water, and that water inside should have been more freely available – if not free.

Let’s not forget: people paid $250 per ticket for the VIP section, which was closer to the stage, or $154 for general admission at the door. After paying such a hefty entry fee, was it really fair to charge $4 for a 500 ml bottle of water?

“When we got to the site the workers were actually emptying onto the ground the bottles of pop and water that they confiscated at the gates,” said one informant, “and inside the gates there were people almost passing out from the heat while standing in the water line up. This just doesn't seem right to me. I really think they should have let people bring their own water. With the temperatures being 30-plus degrees, the 60 to 90 minute wait in a lineup was unreasonable. And probably very dangerous as well.”

The posters promoting this event did mention that customers were not allowed to bring their own food or drink. But this was not the focus of media coverage.

All my contacts confirmed the water situation at more or less the same time. There was no question it was a stressful, aggravating situation. 

In fact, one concertgoer is so angry she launched @salmonfestfail on Twitter and is threatening a class action lawsuit. “They didn't allow patrons to take necessities of life and prevented us from taking water in and ran out of water 1 1/2 hours into concert,” said Debbie Dwight. “Where were the chiefs of police and fire department to do their due diligence on behalf of Grand Falls-Windsor? … They gave away free sunscreen and radio announcers kept telling us to keep hydrated, obviously they didn't know there wasn't water to drink.”

Of course, the media are all over this story today. But what could they have done differently before the crowds began arriving in Grand Falls-Windsor?

Most importantly, they should have done a probing, hard-hitting story prior to the event that put concert organizers on notice that they were under scrutiny. 

Here’s how I might have structured the interview:

“You’re expecting 25,000 people tomorrow on a very hot day. And we understand that concertgoers can’t carry in their own water. How do you plan to keep people hydrated?”

 “This is a safety issue. How many litres of water does a person require over a 12-hour period in such high temperatures? Have you multiplied that by 25,000? And do you have that much in inventory?”

“Wouldn’t it make sense to allow people to carry in their own non-alcoholic drinks?”

“Yes, we realize that people might try to sneak in booze too. But people are drinking in the beer tent anyway – this is not a safety issue, it’s a money-making issue. You want to make money from alcohol sales, right?”

“How much are you charging for water?”

“Don’t you feel like you are exploiting people, charging $4 for a bottle of water? What if people run out of money? No wonder they call it the Exploits Valley.”

“We can understand you charging $7 each for hot dogs and French fries. But $4 for water? You have 25,000 people in your care for 12 hours. Don’t you have an obligation to ensure they are kept hydrated and safe? Shouldn’t water be free?”

Such an interview might have been a wake-up call for the organizers. Indeed, they might have cleaned up their act and mitigated some of these issues in advance. 

Is this too much to expect of our media? After all, there were numerous stories about other aspects of concert preparation, from riders in the headliner’s contract to what the Eagles will be eating for dinner. 

Instead, in the midst of pre-concert hype and hoopla, the most important angle of the story wandered past like a herd of thirsty elephants.

 

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  • Michael
    July 18, 2013 - 11:31

    David, I don't think that is what Geoff is suggesting. And there are some basic questions beyond the more "OMG, what the hell are you thinking?" kinds of questions that Geoff posed in his mock interview For example, did anyone in the media bother to ask something like "We in the media have been reporting extremely high temperatures are forecasted for the event. We in the media have been advising everyone - going to the concert or otherwise - to stay hydrated. Y'all got a plan for that?" While hindsight is 20/20, it seems that for much of the past decade many in the Newfoundland media are more interested in cheerleading their stories about Newfoundland as opposed to taking a more critical view. If this was not the case, would Geoff have much in the way of local material to use in his critique of the media?

  • David Cochrane
    July 16, 2013 - 10:06

    You're right. Our failure to conduct an inventory check for the organizers of an annual event was the real problem here. How is it we failed to push our way past their security to get access to their supplies and do a full accounting of it? This is Sorkin-esque hindsight.

  • Mike
    July 15, 2013 - 12:23

    I'm glad I didn't go. You are right. People should be allowed to bring their own water for an outdoor concert in the summer. Either that or have plenty of water available without long lineups. Failure for the organizers. And Geoff, this is your first post in five months. You should post more often. It's a blog, not a quarterly. Surely there have been things happening in the media that you could have written about.