Goshen News, Goshen, IN

Local News

May 3, 2012

New fair stage rules to take effect today

INDIANAPOLIS — Even before the state’s new emergency rules covering outdoor stage equipment went into effect, the small town of Orleans, Ind., felt their impact.

On Tuesday, the Indiana Department of Homeland Security temporarily shut down a small stage at the annual Orleans Dogwood Festival after an inspector raised questions about how the overhead rigging was constructed.

The issue was resolved by Wednesday, clearing the way for local church gospel groups to perform at the festival, now in its 44th year. But the incident was an indicator of how small town fairs and festivals may be effected by new rules spurred by the fatal stage collapse at last summer’s Indiana State Fair.

“We want people to have successful events,” said State Fire Marshal Jim Greeson, who’s office is in charge of enforcing the new rules. “But it’s got to be safe and it’s got to comply with the rules.”

The emergency rules, unveiled Wednesday by the state Fire and Building Safety Commission, cover overhead rigging structures temporarily erected on stages to support sound and lighting systems.

It was that kind of structure that collapsed at the State Fair last August, killing seven people attending a Sugarland concert. Investigators later said the overhead stage structure that collapsed wasn’t designed to withstand the high wind gusts that blew through the fairgrounds.

The new emergency rules require many events that are open to the public to have engineer-approved plans for their stage rigging systems, along with emergency evacuation plans. The rules also require event organizers to have the stage rigging inspected after it’s erected and to maintain it to ensure its safety. The stage rigging will have to meet certain standards for high winds, snow, and seismic activity.

Robin Haag, executive director of the Elkhart County 4-H Fair, said she expected the fair executive board would be discussing the issue at its Wednesday night meeting.

Gail Gerber, another fair official, pointed out Wednesday that Elkhart County’s large, covered stage, built with concete and steel I-beams, is also covered by another set of rules in the state safe building department. The stage is a permanent structure, with lights and other equipment brought in and anchored to it for various grandstand acts.

“We will provide information to show that our stage is capable of holding the weight of the sound and lighting equipment,” said Gerber, a past fair board president and the current vice president of the Indiana State Festivals Association. The state organization represents about 450 fairs and festivals, he said.

Gerber has been active in the state government’s subcommittee work to improve the rules governing the temporary structures at local fairs and festivals. He earlier testified at the subcommittee hearings during the review of rules.

Gerber pointed out the stage at the Elkhart County fair was planned and built well.

“We’ll continue to work with Homeland Security to have a safe environment for our fair-goers,” Gerber said Wednesday.

“Not much will change,” he said, other than the local fair may have to provide an engineering certificate proving the stage can hold additional weight that may be placed there during the nine-day county fair.

Officially, the emergency rules go into effect today. But the Department of Homeland Security and the State Fire Marshal’s office began inspecting such structures in April, in anticipation of the new rules.

Tami Ehinger, chairwoman of the Orleans Dogwood Festival, said she was surprised when the state temporarily shut down her festival stage Tuesday after she couldn’t supply the state inspector with the detailed site plans that are now required under the new rules. At the time, the new rules hadn’t been published or even approved.

The State Fire Marshal’s office agreed to contact the engineering firm that worked with the contractor that put up the stage rigging. They got what they needed, then gave Ehinger the clearance she needed.

“We weren’t trying to avoid compliance,” she said. “We were not even aware of what needed to do.”

Her concern now is that the new rules that require engineer-approved plans and inspections will increase the festival’s costs in coming years. “We worried that our stage costs are going to go up,” she said. “We’re a small festival on a small budget.”

The temporary rules approved Wednesday are in effect until January 2014. The Indiana General Assembly is expected to adopt more permanent rules after a legislative study committee looks at the issue this summer.

David Hannum, a Terre Haute engineer and head of the Fire and Building Safety Commission charged with developing the emergency rules, said there are exemptions in the emergency rules that may help  minimize the costs for some small fairs and festivals.

For example, a small stage with overhead rigging less than 20 feet tall may be exempt if there is a buffer zone around the stage that extends 8 feet beyond the height of the rigging to protect fans in case of a collapse.

Hannum said the new rules may need to modified after the legislative study committee looks at how they were enforced this summer. “The committee is going to look at it to see if this is Band-aid or a solution,” Hannum said.

Maureen Hayden can be reached at maureen.hayden@indianamediagroup.com. Goshen News reporter Rod Rowe contributed the local comments to this article.

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