by Debbie Schipp
IT'S Byron's biggest music festival, but police have issued a grim warning that if disaster strikes Splendour In the Grass, it would take eight hours to fully evacuate the venue.
They also fear a repeat of the crowd crush at last year's Falls Festival at Lorne in December, when 19 people were taken to hospital with broken bones or other serious injuries and dozens more hurt in a crowd stampede between acts.
Festival-goers caught up in the Lorne incident have since launched a potential million dollar lawsuit agains that festival's promoters.
Both Splendour in the Grass and North Byron Parklands management say the Lorne venue and incident have a different set of circumstances that "has no bearing on Parklands of Splendour in the Grass”, referring to the different layout of the site, including number of access points at various stages.
And they say the eight-hour evacuation doesn't recognise that humans can actually be out in 30 minutes.
The police assessment comes as a response to a long-term proposal from North Byron Parklands, which manages the Splendour venue, asking the NSW Department of Planning and Environment to extend the five year trial of the venue, and also make it a permanent festival site with a capacity of 50,000 - up from the daily limit of 35,000 currently allowed at the site.
In a scorching letter to the Department of Planning and Environment, the crime manager of the Tweed Byron LAC (local area command) Inspector Brendan Cullen flagged "major issues and the potential for disaster” which came out of last year's festival - which with more than 32,000 patrons was the biggest to date.
"There is no possibility of evacuating North Byron Parklands within eight hours at current capacity levels,” he warned, adding that in the wake of the Lorne stampede, the Byron venue should be fully audited to ensure the risk of a similar crowd crush occurring at North Byron Parklands is mitigated.
But North Byron Parklands general manager Mat Morris said the eight-hour evacuation estimate applied to completely clearing the site of all vehicles, and the actual evacuation time for humans is 25 to 30 minutes.
"We have done a whole range of incident simulation exercises looking at a whole range of different scenarios and different threats - and the eight hours being referred to by Inspector Cullen is a complete removal of all vehicles and patrons,” he said.
"If we were to have a bushfire we have the ability to move all of patrons to a 500 hectare adjoining property which is completely free of vegetation within about 25 to 30 minutes.
"With flooding, again, that would be the same time for all patrons. That would mean loss of property, but patrons would be out.”
Mr Morris said since 2013, eight events had been held at the site, and while no incidents requiring major evacuation had occurred, he's confident if an emergency of that volume struck, organisers were well prepared.
"We liaise continually with emergency services and police and run mock many detailed incident simulation workshops with these agencies,” he said.
Inspector Cullen said police resources during the festival were already overstretched at festival time, and "the TBLAC cannot provide first response to the community at large and a satisfactory policing response to the festival.”
He said police could not support an expansion plan until policing numbers, a SafeWork NSW safety audit, emergency plans and better traffic management were addressed, especially in regard to the festival's amphitheatre in light of "the emergency crowd crush situation at Falls Festival, Lorne, Victoria”.”
Road access at last year's festival was "insufficient for emergency and service vehicles.”
"There is no possibility of evacuating within eight hours at current capacity levels,” he wrote.
Splendour In The Grass spokeswoman Jessica Ducrou said Splendour is "100 per cent committed to patron safety”.
"In relation to the incident at Falls Festival in Lorne, Splendour has an Event Safety Committee that meets prior to and after the event. We spend a great deal of time in the planning of the event to ensure the safety of event patrons and staff. NSW Police have attended these meetings, and we have undergone a process of positive consultation with them in relation to crowd flows and general patron safety,” she said.
"It is worth noting the Lorne incident has a completely unique set of circumstances that has no bearing on Parklands or Splendour in the Grass.”
"Splendour in the Grass operates on a Police user-pay system. This essential service helps us meet the needs of our patrons while still fulfilling our responsibilities to the broader community.
"This user-pay service helps ensure that normal policing services to the community can also be maintained.”
North Byron Parklands' 267 hectare site has been the venue for the festival on a trial basis for five years. In addition to asking the Planning department to make the arrangement permanent and increase the capacity to 50,000, Parklands today sought an extension of the current trial arrangement, which expires at the end of the year.
The new request doesn't seek to expand the venue capacity, and would extend the trial period to August 2018.
It would give Parklands time to meet the requirements of NSW Planning before it considers the long-term proposal, and allow the end-of-year Falls Festival at Byron to operate, plus next year's Splendour.
"Under the current trial approval Falls Festival Byron 17/18 cannot operate. Negotiations with several international artists are also well advanced for Splendour in the Grass 2018 and negotiations covering Splendour in the Grass 2019 will commence towards the end of this year,”Mr Morris said.
Splendour in the Grass 2017 will be held from July 21 to July 23.