Indiana fairs, festivals await stage rigging rules

Organizers of some of Indiana's county fairs and small festivals are anxiously awaiting new rules governing the type of rigging involved in last summer's deadly State Fair stage collapse.

Details of the proposed temporary rules, which a state commission may vote on next week, have not been released and that's stirring up concern among festival organizers who fear they could face new costs to comply with the regulations, said Gale Gerber, vice president of the Indiana State Festivals Association. He said many of the 450 festivals and fairs held across Indiana each year operate on shoestring budgets and cannot afford new costs.

"A lot of these small festivals have budgets under $2,000 or $3,000 to run their festivals. If these rules bring new expenses, there's no way they can handle that," Gerber said.

The Indiana Fire Prevention and Building Safety Commission will meet Wednesday to consider the proposed rules, which were prompted by the Aug. 13 collapse of stage rigging that killed seven people and injured dozens before a scheduled Sugarland concert at the State Fair in Indianapolis.

State fair organizers weren't required to have that rigging inspected because it was a temporary structure not covered under Indiana law.

The new emergency rules, which will become Indiana's first regulations for outdoor stage rigging and related temporary structures, are required under legislation Gov. Mitch Daniels signed into law last month.

David Hannum, the safety commission's chairman, said the proposed rules are still being tweaked, but they may include a requirement that event organizers pay for a plan approved by engineers to ensure their stage equipment is safe. He said that requirement would likely apply only to large temporary rigging structures holding lights and sound equipment like the one toppled by high winds at the fairgrounds.

Hannum said the rules are expected to include an exemption for smaller festivals with modest rigging structures, with the provision that organizers of those events create a buffer zone around the stage area to protect fans in the event of a collapse.

He said the goal is to make all outdoor events with stage rigging structures safer for the public.

"Our job is to make sure the public is safe, not that the organizers are happy," Hannum said.

If the panel's members don't want significant changes to the proposed rules at Wednesday's meeting, he said they'll likely go ahead and vote on approval. If that happens, the rules will be posted online the same day, although they won't take effect until July 1.

The temporary rules are intended to serve as a placeholder until permanent rules are in place. A summer legislative study committee will draft recommendations for permanent rules that the next General Assembly will consider.

Among the groups awaiting the new rules is Visit Madison Inc., which is preparing for the Ohio River city's River Roots Music and Folk Arts Festival in May, a blues festival in August and other events.

Linda Lytle, the tourism group's director, said the stage that will be used for the folk music festival at a riverfront park in Madison is hydraulically operated and mounted to the bed of a semitrailer so it can be moved to new sites. She said it unfolds to form a 32-foot-by-46-foot stage with its own rigging in place and is very stable.

"I'm guessing that because of its sturdiness we're going to be OK, but you still don't know what kind of regulations they're going to come up with," she said. "We're hoping that if they do say, 'This is something that needs to be inspected,' they're going to work with us on it."

Steve Patterson, the director of administration with the Indiana Association of Fairs, Festivals and Events, said the "big question" the association's members are asking is whether the new rules will include fees or costs associated with the need for engineers or inspections.

Patterson, who's also director of the Hendricks County 4-H Fair board, said that because of the uncertainty about the rules, the fair's lighting and sound contractor hasn't provided cost estimates for his services for two country music concerts that will be part of the fair's July run in Danville, west of Indianapolis.

"He doesn't know what the requirements are, so he can't tell us how much it will cost," Patterson said.

The legislation's sponsor, Sen. Tim Lanane, D-Anderson, said the new state rules will be flexible enough to ensure that small-town festivals and fairs are safer without creating costly new burdens.

"The rules are going to be geared more toward the major stage structures, but we still want to make sure all of these events are safe," he said.

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