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X Games X-Factors: Heat, Booze, and Meth

EMS almost forced to activate disaster plan

By Chase Hoffberger, Fri., July 4, 2014

X Games X-Factors: Heat, Booze, and Meth
Photo by John Leach

The most extreme thing happening at last month's X Games didn't involve kickflips or tabletop jumps, but rather a massive line of debilitated attendees, many of whom were reportedly strung out on crystal meth. In fact, on Saturday night, June 7, the situation grew so dire out at Circuit of the Americas that Emergency Medical Services nearly needed to activate disaster plans that would have halted that evening's Kanye West performance.

It took a last-minute phone call to a team of 15 Seton Medical Center employees – seven nurses, two emergency physicians, an orthopedic surgeon, four ER techs, and a medical director – to keep things running. Led by Dr. Christopher Ziebell, the emergency department director at University Medical Center Brackenridge, the Seton unit was scheduled to put in a 15-hour workday – 7am to 10pm – but an excess of 230 patients gave cause for EMS to request the unit stick around until 3:30am to help treat those who needed it. Ziebell said his team had been contracted to treat injuries and incidents during the competitions scheduled throughout the weekend, but hadn't been asked to play any role in keeping the scene safe beyond the evening.

"We had done a tremendous amount of preparation for the day," said Ziebell, adding that the average day at UMCB's emergency room sees only 170 patients. "We were overstaffed most of the week, and over-prepared. Then Saturday night came and we were winding down. We hadn't seen many patients for a couple of hours. We weren't asked by the organizers to even consider supporting the concert event. It just worked out that way, that it caught us off guard."

Ziebell credits both the heat and the scheduling gap between the day's athletic competitions and ensuing evening concerts for the excess of patients, noting that attendees had plenty of time to get good and boozed up – or tweaked up – while simultaneously dehydrating themselves in the June sun.

"Concerts tend to be a little more low-key," he said. "There's not all the hiking, tripping, and falling. And the heat: Usually the sun has gone down by concert time, so heat's not usually an issue. We'd normally leave before the concert started."

COTA has four nonconcert events on the docket this remaining calendar year, ranging in scope from the relatively small Fourth of July fireworks display Friday to the globally recognized Formula One Grand Prix in October, which anticipates upwards of 250,000 attendees. Ziebell foresees a few strokes, heart attacks, and instances of nausea and vomiting "just factoring in the magnitude of humans" at the October event, but expects a more docile crowd than the one set to reconvene at COTA over the next two Junes for the X Games.

"We have to manage the heat better than we did this time," Ziebell says of the way Seton and EMS plan to handle future X Games. "If we're going to have a gap in hours between the main event and the concert, we're going to have to understand that people are going to get intoxicated. They have to find a way to fill that time, and we need to be prepared for that."

He also mentioned the possibility of installing an on-site "sobering center" at COTA next June, when the daylong processional of hanging out around half-pipes will once again lead toward a less athletic, more imbibing scene. "Mostly to make sure people are safe, but setting up a space on the property so that people who are too intoxicated can be parked until they're improved. That way, we can keep them safe without putting a further burden on the medical center.

"For future events, you're going to see a more deliberate response to things like alcohol and drugs, so that we're ready for whatever comes our way."

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