Chicago Sun-Times
Tuning in with Thomas Conner

On tornadoes and the cops' new "SkyWatch" spy gear: Lingering questions from Lollapalooza 2008, and quick thoughts on what the festival must do next

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First things first: What if the tornado sirens had gone off when 75,000 people were in Grant Park last Friday, Saturday or Sunday?

tornado

Certainly I'm not the only one who had that thought the day after Lollapalooza, when I rushed to the basement on Monday night during the severe thunderstorms that swept through Chicago, after the tornado sirens went off for the first time I recall in the 18 years that I've lived in this city. (Born in raised in Jersey City and Hoboken, the whole Dorothy/Toto/shelter-in-the-storm cellar routine was a new one for me, and not a little unnerving. Tornadoes aren't supposed to hit cities, right? I mean, outside of Oklahoma?)

How could Grant Park have been quickly evacuated if all of those people needed to leave and seek shelter?

I posed the question to Chicago Police Department spokeswoman Monique Bond.

"The City's Evacuation Plans are handled by the Office of Emergency Management & Communications (OEMC)," Bond said. "There is an evacuation plan in place and when there are large scaled events like the Taste, Lolla, etc., OEMC is activated and prepared to implement the appropriate emergency plans if needed."

And what, exactly, would those plans be? Bond referred me to Jennifer Martinez, the public information officer at OEMC, who returned my call but never answered my question.

"All of our evacuation plans are event-specific, so they change, and obviously, for security reasons, we don't release those plans, just because we don't want someone who may want to cause harm to us to give away here's what we do and here's how you can impact us," Martinez said. "But the planning does go across multiple jurisdictions for every event, and Lollapalooza was no exception."

In other words, the city would like to assure us that it has a plan, but it doesn't want us to know what it is, which makes absolutely no sense: Wouldn't everyone be better off if they knew where they had to go if they had to get there in a hurry in the event of severe weather and amid the general crowd chaos and confusion that would surely accompany any mass evacuation?

"OEM has a plan, and we constantly work with the National Weather Service," Martinez repeated. "We were tracking that storm for a few hours. We're constantly in touch with the National Weather Service, and we have plans in place if they're necessary. We absolutely contacted Wrigley Field that night so they could make sure that people were moved into the interiors of [the stadium]."

It seems fairly obvious that people near the two stages in Butler Field at the northern end of Grant Park would be herded into the underground parking garages directly to the north below Millennium Park, much as the bleacher bums were ushered inside Wrigley Field. But where would the tens of thousands of people in Hutchinson Field to the south--the location of Lollapalooza's marquee stages and the site where Radiohead, Rage Against the Machine and Kanye West performed--go if they needed to get there in a hurry? It's more than a mile to the Millennium Park garages, and a four-block walk, part of it over exposed railroad tracks, to the hotels and office buildings on Michigan Avenue, which couldn't possibly accommodate a crowd half the size of those that saw Radiohead or Rage Against the Machine.

"OEM has a plan," Martinez said for the third time. And for the third time, she repeated that she could not tell anyone what it is.

As for the Chicago Police Department's eye in the sky...

The more time's passed, the more I've wondered about exactly why the ostentatious observation vehicle that officers on the scene called "the Mobile Surveillance Unit" and that the logo on its side labeled the "ICX Tactical Platform" had been deployed at Lollapalooza--and Pitchfork before it--especially given that officers at Grant Park made no effort to curb the many fence-jumpers at the concert, quell the flying wedge of gate-crashers during the Rage Against the Machine set or stop the numerous pot-smokers and falling-over drunks inside the park at any time during the concert.

(The official tally of arrests is minimal, with 7 for disorderly conduct and drinking on a public way on Friday; 8 for the same reasons on Saturday and one for ticket scalping on Sunday, according to the police department. This doesn't mean the arrests weren't ugly; see this report by Time Out Chicago's hard-working bloggers.)

Why was this mobile observation platform in the park at a rock concert?

I posed the question to Bond.

eye in sky #1

Photo by Marty Perez for the Sun-Times

"Not sure what you are referring to as the mobile observation platform," the police spokeswoman replied via email. "We do have a piece of equipment that we have been testing called the 'SkyWatch' that we have been deploying at the Lakefront events. There is no official reason other than to constantly test and implement different equipment and technology to enhance our security operation. SkyWatch has the capability of monitoring large scaled crowds and communicating with the boots on the ground."

Boots on the ground, eyes in the sky: Even if the billy clubs never started swinging, it's all still eerily evocative of the police riot that greeted the Democratic National Convention in Our Town 40 years ago this month, leading to the famous trial of the "Chicago Eight" and a lingering stain on the legacy of the first Mayor Daley as well as the notion of free speech in this fine city. Read up on it, kids. Read and weep. (By the way, I'm not old enough to remember any of that: I was three when it happened.)

The last word on Lollapalooza... until 2009

Following the first three years of the reinvented destination festival, I cited a list of complaints where I felt the promoters could do much better to provide the concert Chicago deserves, from eliminating the sound bleed by having fewer but better programmed stages, to cutting back on the V.I.P. areas (which seems to have been a big part of the problem in creating bottlenecks for the regular customers as they tried to escape the chaos on the field during Rage Against the Machine) and corporate sponsorships (and at this point, it's really the artists' fault for living with them; did Rage or Radiohead even think to ask to remove the AT&T flag that flew over their heads? Or were they just too eager to cash their paychecks?)

This year, I'll simply quote my colleague Greg Kot at the Chicago Tribune, who wrote:

The new challenges facing Lollapalooza became more apparent as the weekend progressed. A sold-out show doesn't always guarantee a successful one. This year, the festival was able to rise to the challenge but it's clearly maxed out--it can't get any bigger. As they map out next year's Grant Park gathering of the rock tribes, promoters and the city should ponder this question: Would fans be better served with fewer but stronger bands, fewer stages with less overlap, and a capacity of 60,000 people each day instead of 75,000? For Lollapalooza 2009, smaller may be better.

And this anonymous poster from the Sound Opinions message board:

Complaints about this year:

1. Too many bands. At the end of the day I feel like a went to a three day physical incarnation of a CD sampler. Less is more. Stop just buying blocks of talent to make up for a loss of vision.

2. Garbage. Everywhere. Disgusting.

3. Sound bleed. This should go along with #1 when it comes to a solution. Less bands would bring less likelihood of sound bleed. Really, when it even happens during the headliners you know you have a problem.

4. More water. Never enough.

Lollapalooza has three more years remaining in the five-year contract that its lawyer, Mayor Daley's nephew, negotiated with the Park District. And from now through 2011, Chicago should get the Lollapalooza it deserves.

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16 Comments

I hope OEMC has a better plan than what happened @ Durkin Park. 51 calls for help, and 26 minutes later'
8 people ran over intentionally!!!
They didnt respond to our cries for help.
I Hope they are prepared!

You keep coming back to the AT&T logo at the top of the stage, but if the stage is named the "AT&T Stage," it absolutely has to have the name on it somewhere. That's Usability 101, and before you counter with "everybody knows that's the AT&T Stage," no designer worth his salt would ever assume that every single person is going to be absolutely sure of that at all times, regardless of how good an assumption it seems to be. So I still think the two big banners on the sides were a pretty big concession, and as much of one as you could have expected.

Am I the only one who thinks having less bands at Lolla is a bad idea? One of the things I enjoy the most about Lolla is being able to have plenty of options at any time, and it allows me to check out new bands I wouldn't be able to otherwise.

There were several points in the weekend where there weren't choices I liked on the two big stages, and I found some interesting bands on the smaller stages instead (Nicole Atkins, Wild Sweet Orange). Plus, if they were going to cut out bands, the Kids stage might be one of the first to go, and I can tell you that my daughter and many other kids really enjoyed that area.

Also, since I had a daughter, I can't get out to the clubs and bars as often as I did in the past to see bands, so if I can compress 20 bands into one weekend (and basically end up paying around $8-9 per band), how is that a problem?

And one more thing, they took down the giant side banners with AT&T's logo on them for Radiohead's set, does anyone in the world really care that there was one banner left on top of the stage for AT&T?? Was anyone even looking up there during Radiohead's set? I only notice it now in the photos I've seen from the festival.

I for one had a fantastic time at Lolla this year, and aside from the sound problems I found at Radiohead's set, had no complaints on the weekend.

Am I the only one who thinks having less bands at Lolla is a bad idea? One of the things I enjoy the most about Lolla is being able to have plenty of options at any time, and it allows me to check out new bands I wouldn't be able to otherwise.

There were several points in the weekend where there weren't choices I liked on the two big stages, and I found some interesting bands on the smaller stages instead (Nicole Atkins, Wild Sweet Orange). Plus, if they were going to cut out bands, the Kids stage might be one of the first to go, and I can tell you that my daughter and many other kids really enjoyed that area.

Also, since I had a daughter, I can't get out to the clubs and bars as often as I did in the past to see bands, so if I can compress 20 bands into one weekend (and basically end up paying around $8-9 per band), how is that a problem?

And one more thing, they took down the giant side banners with AT&T's logo on them for Radiohead's set, does anyone in the world really care that there was one banner left on top of the stage for AT&T?? Was anyone even looking up there during Radiohead's set? I only notice it now in the photos I've seen from the festival.

I for one had a fantastic time at Lolla this year, and aside from the sound problems I found at Radiohead's set, had no complaints on the weekend.

If I was geek enough, I could remember the name of those machines in "Star Wars" that had long, "legs" and crushed everything underneath them as commanders (maybe?) rode above and shot everything in its path. My apologizes for not remembering the exact name ... I know I'm not making a lick of sense.

I'm not suggesting that these Skywatch things have such capabilities, of course, but holy moses do they remind of those machines. Scary much?

Is it really so hard for you to understand why the city wouldn't want to disclose its emergency plans? It doesn't seem silly to me. There are several well known cases where people who set off bombs in public places also set off secondary bombs to catch people as they were fleeing. Is this an unlikely possibility for Grant Park? I think and hope so; but while I'm all for openness and transparency (and believe Chicago is generally pitiful in this area), in this case, I think they are correct.


Hey Jim (and all the kids like me who're too young to remember it): there was a pretty good pseudo-documentary that came out earlier this year about the Chicago Seven called "Chicago 10."

But on to the creepy stuff... Why was the Wall-E Mobile there in the first place? It seems like an awful waste of space (which, from most accounts, was pretty valuable, especially for tossing trash), not to mention money, especially if they're not going to do anything with it. Look, I'm all for people doing what they need to do to enjoy a concert, so long as they don't interfere with other concert-goers, and I deplore any sort of militaristic police presence. But if the police are going to set up a tower that could be directly out of a Nineteen Eighty-Four world, shouldn't they at least, y'know, use it?

And Erin -- they're called AT-AT Walkers. And yes, I'm a geek. It happens.

David, I think you missed Jim's point. It's one thing to withhold information because of bomb threats, terrorist activity, etc. But storm/fire/emergency prep warnings are entirely different. Think about the place you work. I know that where I work, there is an emergency escape plan in case of fire, storm, and, yes, even terrorism. They do the same on airplanes, trains, and even at other festivals.

It makes sense to publicize emergency plans, and it makes zero sense to keep it a secret. In the event of an emergency, mass amounts of people tend to turn into a mass of frenzied, panicked idiots. To minimize the risk of this happening, people should at least be aware that there is a plan, as well as having access to the plan's implementation. We're not talking about the government's response to a bomb threat; we're simply talking about keeping people safe. And to me, a well-publicized emergency evacuation plan is a hell of a lot more geared towards public safety than that stupid Mobile Observation Platform.

Tornadoes aren't supposed to hit cities? That's what I thought about Atlanta, but we were hit earlier this year. Badly Damaging our beloved Cabbagetown district amongst other Atlanta landmarks.

Jim, have you noticed the correlation between the corporate sponsorship of the stages of Austin City Limits and Lolla (CSE produced fests) vs. Coachella and Bonnaroo to the ticket prices? One could argue that the cost to bring the performers of the four fests is relatively similar. Here are the 2008 prices:

Lolla: $175-$205 (no additional fees)
ACL: $135-$170 (no additional fees)

Coachella: $249-$269 PLUS $30-$40 in service fees (woo ticketmaster)
Bonnaroo: $209-$229 plus $20-$30 in fees

In addition, Lolla and ACL are held in or near the centers of large cities, while Bonnaroo and Coachella are in the middle of nowhere. I'm no expert, but it has to cost more to rent major city parks vs deserts and farmlands.

Sure the AT&T logo is an eyesore; but if it saves me $50 or more in ticket costs, I can put up with them.

I don't really understand the problem with the platform. As a firefighter-EMT I love to have situational awareness when I'm dealing with large crowds. The same goes for police. Having an elevated vantage point isn't just a security thing, a pair of binoculars and a twenty five foot elevation go a long way towards seeing people in trouble, or spotting trouble before it starts. If that platform said Chicago Fire Department would you have had a problem with it, even though they would've been doing the same thing (obviously they weren't writing citations for public intoxication, open container, or pot). Plus I saw that platform going up and down throughout the festival answering people's questions, problems, etc. You want to talk about scary, talk about the several private security guards I saw wandering the park with .45s and 9mms. In the end it's a public space and you are subject to surveillance at the discretion of public safety. The helicopter over Radiohead was a bit excessive though. I agree with Jim on the OEM planning issues though. I was stunned when I flipped through the festival program and there was no evacuation plan, or "in the event of" section. In my experience enough people read those things to make a difference. Generally when an OEM manager refuses to disclose things for security reasons, it means they have a poor plan, a cookie cutter all hazards playbook (that won't work and my brethren will need to fix), or they have no plan. My guess is they were running plan number 2.

How can your privacy be invaded if you're in a public space with 60,000 other people?

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This page contains a single entry by Jim DeRogatis published on August 7, 2008 6:03 PM.

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