What Now for SXSW?
A year after the Red River tragedy, the city and the Festival look to a sustainable future
Tim Gibbons received the call just a few minutes after 12:30am.
"All I could hear in my earpiece was 'Blah, blah, blah,'" he remembers, straining to hear over the Downtown hum of South by Southwest Music's first night, the opening hours of March 13.
"Then the word 'car,' and then 'crowd.'"
Gibbons, who at the time was an eight-year veteran of Austin-Travis County Emergency Medical Services, was stationed with his partner on a Polaris Ranger all-terrain vehicle at Sixth Street and Brazos, and they immediately broke north toward the wreckage developing along Red River Street. (Gibbons is no longer with ATCEMS.)
"I'm going down 10th Street eastbound, and I get up to the top of the Trinity hill coming down toward Red River," said Gibbons. "I'm like, 'Oh, fuck.' There was just bodies – everywhere. Everybody was laid out."
Special Events Commander Wes Hopkins says EMS retains a "very good midlevel knowledge of mass casualty incidents," but Gibbons, as a field medic, had never been a part of planning. A Massachusetts native who came up working EMS in Boston, Gibbons remembers immediately reverting to his earliest training, radioing in his badge number – "2166" – to indicate that he was in command. (ATCEMS protocol is to signify your unit.)
"I said, 'I've got six, eight, at least 12 ... This is a level-2 mass casualty incident,'" he said. "'I need at least three dispatch transport units. Send them from 15th Street, Red River southbound.'"
He'd soon see there were 25 victims laid out across Red River Street. Gibbons got off his ATV and started assessing them with emergency triage: Reds were the most critical; yellows were intermediate. Greens were good – that's relative – and they would receive treatment after others. Any victims assigned with a black tag were considered dead upon arrival. ATCEMS applied those to two who'd been hit by the gray Honda Civic, operated by Rashad Owens, that drove through a barricade into a crowd of late-night partiers. Over the next couple of weeks, two more victims would eventually succumb to their injuries.
Red River Street was officially a crime scene, and police had begun closing the area from the public. SXSW Managing Director Roland Swenson, at Mohawk to see the band X when the Civic careened past the Ninth Street police barricade, herded staff members and volunteers, and began moving onlookers away so that APD could begin investigating. Gibbons stayed in EMS command until Division Chief James Hawley posted. According to ATCEMS Chief of Staff James Shamard, who represented his department at a press conference near the site the next morning, EMS loaded and transported all those in critical condition within 15 minutes, and the ones assigned yellow tags before 12:53. The whole scene was cleared of victims in less than 50 minutes.
"We rocked it," said Gibbons. "The guys that showed up on scene, the trucks, there wasn't one paramedic or EMT who did not absolutely rock it."
South by Southwest would continue, but with a cloud over the city. Swenson, particularly pensive during the next morning's press conference, told the press that his organization – which has operated throughout Austin at varying degrees of grandiosity since 1987 – was "stunned and deeply moved" by the events around Red River.
"We would have been happy to pack up and go home right then," he wrote via email in February. "Instinctively, we knew that canceling SXSW was impractical." More than 300,000 visitors had traveled to Austin for four days of music, food, and fun. To say, "Sorry, you should just hang out in your hotel until your flight leaves" would be irresponsible.
Moreover, Police Chief Art Acevedo had spoken publicly about SXSW's need to continue operations. "We cannot allow one individual, through his selfish acts, to ruin a wonderful event," he said on Thursday morning. "A celebration of life and music. If you were to cancel the event, it would be a victory for evil and not a victory for humanity." And so, aside from a few afternoon closures at Mohawk and Cheer Up Charlies (the two venues closest to the crash scene), SXSW and its ancillary, unofficial parties and events went on as scheduled. Swenson reports that MassiveMusic, the Dutch label run in part by Steven Craenmehr, one of the two people who died at the scene, contacted SXSW to ensure the show would still go on. Label execs wanted to honor crash victims through their Thursday showcase.
Swenson (who founded the Conference with Chronicle founders Nick Barbaro and Louis Black, both of whom still serve as co-directors) spent the rest of the Festival focused on "normal tasks" while also ensuring that immediate counseling was made available for SXSW staff who served as eyewitnesses.
"First thing the next morning we had a conference call with James Moody [a partner at both Mohawk and Transmission Events] and a number of others about setting up a charity to collect money for the victims," wrote Swenson. "We came up with a few ideas of what to call it, but kept finding other groups using the same names, so finally we named it SXSW Cares, because we had used that successfully to raise money for the victims of the earthquake and tsunami in Japan a few years before. We had the new charity up and running and taking in donations by the early afternoon."
Since last March, he says, the SXSW Cares Fund has raised more than $250,000.
Finding the Right Size
On March 27, two weeks after the crash, then-Council Member Mike Martinez proposed a resolution to City Council directing City Manager Marc Ott to conduct "a full post-event evaluation of all events taking place during SXSW."
His thinking was simple: The tragedy on Red River illustrated the worst of what can happen when an event stretches city departments to a critical mass. With 250 or more major events on Austin's docket each year, the probability becomes a weekly worry. What's more, the regularity of these events – SXSW, February's Austin Marathon, Formula One, the Austin City Limits Music Festival, and many others in a long list of events that cause road closures, traffic jams, and re-allocations of civic personnel, and (it should go without saying) bring serious tourist dollars into the city – disrupts residential life, creates potential safety concerns, and puts difficult-to-sustain strains on city resources. Medics work overtime, police officers are spread thin across the neighborhoods, and firefighters scramble to check safety code compliances. Overtime wages accumulate (APD alone paid $497,000 in overtime during SXSW, Asst. Chief Brian Manley told the Public Safety Commission last May, though much of that was recouped through event fees). The list goes on.
With this year's influx still expected to exceed 300,000 people, SXSW and its surrounding circus (the greater number, by far) is by good measure the largest major event on the block. In that respect, the way the city prepares for the five-day Music melee (the culmination of the overall Festival) becomes a template for its various departments in planning standard procedures. As Public Safety Commissioner Mike Levy noted during an April PSC meeting, these issues are not unique to SXSW: the traffic, re-allocation of city resources – even Owens' crash into the crowd that Wednesday. "It could have happened any time throughout the year," he clarified by telephone. "Mardi Gras, same shutdown [of city streets]. Halloween, same shutdown. The guy was on the frontage road [when Officer Traylor pulled him over]. He could have just as easily turned left as he turned right."
Commissioner Kim Rossmo was able to summarize the heart of this year's matter: "If the character of [the week surrounding] SXSW is changing, it may be wise to develop a state of purpose of what [that week] is supposed to do – what it's supposed to be. If it's supposed to be a place for venuing music, technology, movies, arts: great. But the concern is that it then starts to devolve into a party, with events offering free alcohol; everything clustered. It starts to take on a life of its own and grow in patterns that are not compatible with what the city's citizens would like for it to be, and ends up, like many special events, becoming a huge problem that ultimately gets canceled."
Sharing the Public Space
In adopting the Martinez proposal, the City Council tasked Ott to return with an evaluation in 90 days. But by Aug. 4, when SXSW announced itself officially "open for business" for 2015, city staff hadn't yet presented any findings. A report finally arrived Sept. 4: 20 pages discussing nine different talking points ranging from "event sprawl" to "impact of queuing lines into open streets" that mostly boiled down to two key issues: management of the week's many unofficial parties and the heavy traffic present throughout the conference. Months late and devoid of finite numbers, the report was less conclusive than a preview for the decisions that would get made over the next few months.
SXSW, meanwhile, has been busy compiling its own set of ways to make the 10 days safer. In October, it commissioned a report by the global design and planning firm Populous, which recommended – somewhat abstractly – that the city provide assistance in helping SXSW, LLC, separate itself from "SXSW the Spring Break." "A legal injunctive zone ... that protects the brand equity and its sponsors," read one line in the nine-page report, just below a recommendation for a "controlled soft perimeter" with safety and security checks.
Ominous language concerning SXSW's potential departure from Austin filled that week's local headlines (Swenson declined to even entertain the possibility that SXSW move its Music Conference), and put pressure on City Hall to recognize SXSW's economic impact, which Greyhill Advisors concluded in September amounted to $315 million in 2014 (SXSW's direct impact accounts for $208.6 million of that figure). In sum, Populous recommended that the city employ significant preferential treatment toward SXSW with respect to temporary event permits.
Just as Swenson insisted that SXSW harbored no plans to pack up and relocate, his company did not agree with the Populous suggestion that the City begin to blacklist unofficial events in lieu of official business. "We never believed that was a practical solution for the future," wrote Brad Spies, who manages brand development and special projects at SXSW. "Especially for preserving the spirit of the event." He says that SXSW's approach has been to "engage the outside events, and look for ways to bring them into the fold so we can help facilitate their production and put on the best show possible." Spies believes unofficial events "add to the vibrancy of SX and are part of the Festival's broader identity.
"As the Festival has grown in scope and popularity over the past 28 years, so, naturally, has the number of unofficial events. However, large events like ours are by nature very resource-intensive, so that creates a challenge both for us and for the city."
Logistically, that's also where SXSW, the city, and its citizens will have to find a compromise. SXSW brings the city a lot of money and international prestige, and the city would like to do what it can to engage and sustain the Festival. But, acknowledging Spies' sentiment that SXSW share real estate and enthusiasm with unofficial events, there's also an expectation that the city throw at least some degree of deference toward its year-round residents. SXSW is different from Formula One and ACL Fest; it's not site-contained, and it happens in our daily roadways and restaurants. Responsibility falls on both the city and SXSW to welcome community involvement; 900,000 Austinites shouldn't ever be subject to 10 days in which one company obtains de facto, solitary control of the entire Downtown district. By the same token, companies and organizations piggybacking on the official festival's popularity should not be allowed to assume the sky's the limit.
Thomas Ates, who lives north of UT campus, contacted politicians, city staffers, and assorted members of the press when he caught wind of a January rumor that the city would only distribute temporary permits to SXSW itself and to "large-scale corporate events." "Especially with the Music portion, it really is the only part that the entire city can take part in," he said when reached by telephone in February. "You have all these showcases – SXSW and independent – in which the city's Regular Joes can participate. It becomes the city's event. All of these permits were helping to make that happen."
That task – ensuring that every Tom, Dick, and Harry feel as welcome throughout that musical stretch in March as every industry executive with a badge on their lanyard – now falls directly on Bill Manno and a team of representatives from various departments around the city (including APD, the Music & Entertainment Division, and the Department of Transportation, among others). Together, they form the Austin Center for Events, a 2012 initiative opened after a 2012 resolution to eliminate what Spies calls "a [planning] process that is still in silos to a fair degree."
ACE is not a city department; it's an office for departments, a sort of clearinghouse and information exchange. Manno, a retired special events commander with APD, isn't its boss but rather administrative manager. He coordinates conversations between city departments and each permit applicant, and tries to better streamline communication through the process. Since 2014, he's been the one in charge of sorting out how to divvy up all the available permits. Music Program Manager Don Pitts says this year is all about "getting things back to ... music discovery." Now that onus falls on Manno. The first step was a cutback in the number of temporary use permit applications the city would accept. "Last year there were 168," he said. "We ended up [in 2015] with 147."
A final list of approved applications wasn't available when this story went to press, but a soft target for ACE was to approve roughly 105 events. (Last year the city issued 140 permits.) A rundown of this year's applications reflects that only 54 of the 147 applications were filed by SXSW. Even in the face of extremely heavy-handed company favoritism, the temporary events landscape would receive a 50/50 split.
Getting to Zero
In addition to the permit changes, the city has restructured departmental deployment strategies to better facilitate the arrival of 300,000 visitors.
APD has increased its squadrons, assigning 60 more officers during "key hours" (2pm-2am) Sunday through Thursday, and an additional 60 on top of that during the Friday and Saturday of SXSW Music. Under Special Events Commander Tim Pruett, the department will pull upwards of 80 patrol units from neighborhoods toward the Downtown area, where they'll serve as barricade reinforcements for the nearly 40 city blocks the Department of Transportation has decided to close to vehicles. APD also plans to use a special response team of 120 officers whom Asst. Chief Jason Dusterhoft describes as "trained in crowd control" to deter any violence. Expect police to be proactive in traffic rerouting as well, and more than willing to close highway on- and off-ramps in the event of sudden congestion. APD will also rely on increased involvement from the Texas Alcoholic Beverage Commission, which joins ACE this year in an effort to ward away parties with free alcohol.
EMS Special Events Commander Hopkins reports that he's happy with the way a 2014 increase in staffing affected operations, and plans to employ the same number of medics and EMTs moving forward. "The only thing we did to change our staffing model was change from four days to five days," he said. "SXSW typically does a soft start on the day that Music starts – on Tuesday. This year, they're doing a hard start." Tuesday also happens to be St. Patrick's Day, an annual holiday reserved for red-faced drunks.
Rossmo learned of SXSW's plans to "hard launch" on Tuesday – making events official that had been hosted informally for years – while in conversation with Dusterhoft at a Public Safety meeting. He worried aloud that this might be perceived as an expansion, and, "given the problems that happened last year," wouldn't efforts be made "to try to trim it down ... to get a better hold of it. Making it bigger is only going to make it harder to control, despite all the planning in the world."
"That's the city of Austin's call," replied Dusterhoft. "But we believe, whatever the call is, that we can make it safe. If you look at every event that we've done, 99 percent of them are extremely safe, and people feel comfortable coming to them." Rossmo shot Dusterhoft a glance from across the makeshift conference table: "It's that one percent we worry about."
However possible, the goal is to reach zero.
Clarification: An earlier version of this story failed to clarify that Tim Gibbons is no longer with Austin-Travis County Emergency Medical Services, and that Wes Hopkins did not refer to St. Patrick's Day as "annual holiday reserved for red-faced drunks." The story has been updated for clarity.