Asheville, drugs and rock ‘n’ roll: a look at local concert security

"Whether it's Bassnectar or Tim McGraw, each band comes with their own seperate issues," says USCC general manager Chris Corl of genre-related security concerns. Photo by Kat McReynolds

UNLUCKY SEVEN

On Saturday, Oct. 25, Sound Tribe Sector 9 began its headlining show at the US Cellular Center without a hitch, but shortly thereafter, security personnel identified seven audience members suffering from drug-induced medical conditions. The seven were quickly transported to Mission Hospital, but over an hour later, the band’s set was stopped and the venue emptied — a rare move in the concert industry.

In the days immediately following the incident, USCC management acknowledged it only with an official statement. But after a voluntary security and evacuation policies meeting with Asheville Police Department on Wednesday, USCC general manager Chris Corl provided additional information about his team’s response to the overdoses and the venue’s security practices in general.

“They were all one isolated group,” says Corl, explaining that the seven individuals arrived together and took the same drug. “We worked with that group to help the people who needed help. Those who were with the group who didn’t need help came out also, just to stay with their friends. Something like this is never positive, but the way our staff responded was definitely positive.”

Corl says his event staff noticed distressed audience members in the seats who, when offered help, were unresponsive. “That’s when the calls came in over the radio,” says Corl, adding that the requested ambulances were on site within five minutes of the first radio communication.

THE SHOW MUST GO ON

STS9 continued its set for at least 90 minutes after the medical transports, according to Corl. However, during this period, the security team faced new issues.

While the seven affected individuals were quickly and safely ushered out of the venue, Corl’s team held concerns that other overdoses could potentially loom, especially if the drug-using group had been separated from one another during the show.

Officers, concerned about the potential for additional overdoses, went into the crowd for extra patrolling. One officer was hit in the head with a plastic bottle, although Corl says it was never determined whether or not that bottle was intentionally thrown at the authority figure. No other specific instances of violence were reported, and that’s just the way Corl wanted to keep it.

“The police felt like we were getting to the point that the crowd might become unruly. We had the conversation with ourselves, the promoter, the tour manager and the police, and the determination was made that… it would be okay if we cut it short and asked everyone to leave,” says Corl, adding that there were only 20 minutes remaining in the set. STS9’s tour manager assuaged the crowd, asking them to be calm and exit in case someone besides the original seven needed help. Corl’s fears that ending any show would incite a riot were not substantiated. Once the initial booing subsided, says the manager, “it was not the horror story that you would think.”

ONGOING BATTLES

Although Saturday’s overdoses were a shock, curbing illegal substance abuse is nothing new for local venue managers, including Michael Whalen, one of five members on the Orange Peel’s general management team.

“We’re pretty good at watching people and their behavior,” says Whalen, adding that the Orange Peel is well known as a zero tolerance facility. Whalen says pat downs at the door are effective for finding weapons, alcohol and other large items, but small contraband is most often sighted — or heard, in the case of excessive sniffing (seriously) — inside the venue.

Getting 1,000-plus individuals into a performance space in a timely manner while thoroughly searching for contraband is an artform, according to the managers. “Most people show up in the last 20 minutes, so it’s definitely a balancing act,” says Corl.

Both the Peel and USCC management say that individual drug incidents don’t contribute significantly to additional venue costs because preventative measures and sufficient staff are already budgeted into each show, and emergency medical services are billed back to the patient. Plus, major incidents have been infrequent: Corl recalls only two other medical transports in his two years at USCC. “It’s pretty rare here, but at the same time it could happen tomorrow again,” he says. “You never know what people take before they walk in the doors. That’s the scary part.”

While drug associations may have an effect of staffing and security planning for individual concerts, both Corl and Whalen say reputation wouldn’t preclude booking or re-booking a band. “It would be a long conversation first,” says Corl, but the venue doesn’t currently have policies in place to deny bookings at management’s discretion. (USCC, it should be noted, does not self-promote its shows, but rather acts as a rental space, facilitating various uses within the building. The Peel self-promotes local acts’ shows.)

MEDICALLY SPEAKING

Mission Hospital is prohibited from releasing information regarding the type of drugs used and the severity of the medical emergency that the seven individuals at the STS9 concert faced. “We can only provide the one word condition, which is discharged,” says public relations manager Jerri Jameson.

Although the individuals are recovering normally, Mission Hospital emergency physician Dr. Ramming says the concert environment does not mix well with illegal stimulants.

“They dance and they rave and they’re using a lot of energy and what happens is they can get a very high fever,” says Ramming of drug-users at music events. “They get a combination of being dehydrated and very thirsty, and they drink a lot of fluid.” Whether users reach for water or booze, a fluid overload changes the body’s electrolytes, according to the doctor, and can lead to “seizures and all kinds of life-threatening problems.”

Delays in seeking medical attention caused by an inability to leave a crowd aren’t a major risk factor in Asheville, says Ramming, although this is more often a problem at large-scale events. Instead, patients who are “not thinking clearly” don’t recognize warning signs, and neither do the “fired up” crowd members nearby.

But concerts, says Ramming, aren’t the biggest source of drug overdoses for Mission. “We see it in all settings… and there’s so much good that comes from those concerts that I don’t see.”

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About Kat McReynolds
Kat studied entrepreneurship and music business at the University of Miami and earned her MBA at Appalachian State University. Follow me @katmAVL

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