Exclusive: Guardians of Glastonbury

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Gerald Taylor, Devon and Somerset’s Assistant Chief Fire Officer, unveils the intricate fire safety preparations and operations at the globally renowned Glastonbury music festival

Music, art, and camaraderie – these are usually the highlights that come to mind when you think about Glastonbury Festival.

But behind the scenes of the UK’s largest greenfield music and performing arts festival, a different type of rhythm beats – that of the meticulously orchestrated fire safety protocols.

To shed light on these hidden heroes of the festival, we sat down with Gerald Taylor, the Assistant Chief Fire Officer and Director of Service Delivery at Devon and Somerset Fire & Rescue Service.

The festival fire safety team is tasked with the enormous responsibility of ensuring the safety of over 200,000 attendees, performers, and staff at the five-day festival.

From strategy planning to emergency response, Taylor’s insights reveal how critical fire safety planning is to the successful execution of this world-renowned event.

Can you explain the process involved in getting approval for the various plans need to put in place for the festival?

The first thing to say is that Glastonbury has been going since the 1970s – it’s not like you’re starting from scratch.

But it has evolved and changed massively over the years to become a very highly and professionally managed event.

The licence for the festival is key to planning.

A key licencing agreement is that the festival is organised through a SAG (Safety Advisory Group) which they refer to in the in the case of Glastonbury Festival as ‘the multi-agency partnership’, otherwise known as the MAP.

All of the plans for the licence requirement are developed through that multi agency partnership.

 Some of them, the fire service are very directly involved in as you can imagine, such as the fire safety plan, the major incident plan, the command and control plan.

We have direct conversations through meetings to develop those and make sure we’re comfortable with them.

For the more technical plans such as the crowd control and crowd dynamics, we get fire safety professionals involved.

I sign them off, but I do so the advice of the professionals.

The collaborative involvement in their development gives us the competence to sign off through the Council.

What do you need to plan for?

For that the festival itself, it is very much a risk-based approach.

They look at what the key risks are – crowd dynamics is probably one of the most important one.

The way that the actual timings of the performances take place is all designed around the crowd dynamics.

If you’ve got a major actor playing on the Pyramid Stage, you’ll always have a major actor playing on the Other Stage, which actually starts to control the crowd dynamics.

For a fire rescue perspective, it’s important to point out that for 50 weeks of the year is a farm.

Then, for five days, it’s a city of a quarter of a million people.

It’s very difficult to get people familiar with the risk beforehand because if you just go there, you’re looking at farm.

You need to really make sure that the people involved are experienced, that there is continuity, and that they understand the topography of the site and the risks that exist there.

In terms of the fire risk, you have, for example, pyrotechnics, camping gas cylinders, and temporary stages being built.

It’s a case of ensuring that the all the fire safety legislation is being complied with, despite that very temporary nature.

 A lot of hard work goes into walking around and inspecting those venues, negotiating with the venue managers to make sure that they alter their arrangements if needed.

How does the Devon & Somerset Fire & Rescue Service balance the need for a significant safety presence at the festival while maintaining “business as usual” elsewhere?

One of the things I found that there was a quite a heavy draw on people from around the festival working in the festival, and that left us vulnerable outside.

So in order to mitigate that particular risk, I draw people deliberately from across the whole of Devon and Somerset.

We’re a large fire and rescue service, the largest in England.

By spreading the team from across that geographical area it mitigates any impact in any local area, particularly around the festival site itself.

Could you describe the role and activities of the business safety officers during the festival?

The fire safety officers are the people who are qualified to inspect and enforce the Regulatory Reform (Fire Safety) Order.

They are qualified people to carry out those inspections, and put in place any enforcement required.

They are very experienced individuals because you’re going to need to deal with some fairly unique risk and work out how to support the festival in in making changes to make sure we haven’t got dangerous conditions in place.

We have a massive tabletop exercise before the festival where we bring together the emergency services and the organisers for each of the venues.

When you sit with them and start talking to them about what their backgrounds are, you find that they are highly qualified individuals.

We all think it’s a group of unqualified roadies , they’re not at all they are engineers, they are highly professional in terms of the way that they consider health and safety.

 It’s never really too much of a battle to get things changed.

They do listen to us and make changes as needed.

I can’t big them up enough.

It’s such a professionally organised event.

The first year I went, I was like a rabbit in the headlights and in awe of the arrangements that are in place.

But it’s such an important festival.

Some people describe it as probably the safest festival, and that’s a reflection on the efforts and professionals of everyone involved.

There was a fire in the Pilton Palais at the festival this year – what happened and how was it handled?

The Pilton Palais is a cinema tent.

Just ahead of a screening the projector caught fire.

That was previously recognised as one of the key potential risk areas for that for that specific marquee and so there was a fire point right next to the projection room with a fire extinguishers in place.

As soon as it caught fire, trained stewards grabbed extinguishers and put it out.

The small fire itself was over and done with before we got there.

Our role was literally to get the PPV fans in place, get the smoke out of the venue, move the projector outside, and then check with a thermal imaging camera to make sure that there was there no other concerns.

It was over and done with before we got there.

How do communicate fire safety to the many thousands of festival goers?

All our campaigns are always based on historical data that we have about what instances we’ve been dealing with.

The risks we deal with, particularly around gas canisters, carbon monoxide, and just camping generally.

We produce social media messaging which then the festival shares through social media accounts.

If there is a more significant event during the event, there are vast communication systems on site. There are 10,000s of stewards are all linked on communications.

There are also massive screens on either side of the stage that we can use if needed to get messaging out there in an emergency. We also have 24/7 command and control through an on-site multi-agency Tactical Control Group.

You engaged with the Gypsy and traveller community prior to the event – can you tell me more about this?

They’ve got a strong history with the festival.

They arrive on the farm in March-April time, certainly early on.

They live in caravans and they are, in normal circumstances, a hard to reach community.

One of our colleagues has got a background in engagement with the them and he gets onsite early, builds those relationships, looks at their caravans and their vehicles and will look to fit smoke alarms and increase their awareness of fire safety within their environment.

 For us it’s a fantastic opportunity to engage with what can sometimes be a hard to engage with group.

 It’s a very positive relationship and an opportunity that is helped massively by the festival.

You work with Glastonbury Fire Safety during the festival – how does that collaboration work and what are their responsibilities?

The event is run through a company called Glastonbury Festival Events limited.

They contract in Glastobury Fire Safety.

They provide first response; they’ve got teams of first responders – firefighters in four-by-four vehicles with beaters and fire extinguishers.

In first instance, they will get called out to deal with minor type incidents.

They send an alert to our team and our incident commander will go in and discuss each of the incidents at the Fire Desk in the Event Control Centre and determine whether we need to mobilise alongside their teams.

We have continual dialogue, a very close working relationship with them in terms of managing the overall fire safety and fire response.

It’s a very positive working relationship and collaboration.

Were there any lessons you learned that you plan to carry forward into your preparations for next year’s festival?

We’ve got a really strong debriefing process.

We start with our internal debrief and that will feed into the wider festival fire safety debrief.

So, including Glastonbury Festival, we’ll set that up probably in September.

That will lead into the multi-agency debrief early in the autumn.

The initial feedback we’ve had from the festival was that it went extremely well.

They were very pleased with the arrangements that were in place, and they proved to be very effective in terms of preventing incidents from happening, but also response when anything did happen was very swift and effective.

If there’s any improvements they will be minor – the model is proven to work well at the moment.

This exclusive article was originally published in the August 2023 issue of International Fire & Safety Journal. To read your FREE digital copy, click here.

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