Las Vegas police investigate a street near the site of the Route 91 Harvest mass shooting last year. (Getty Images)
A year ago, on Oct. 1, Shiva Ghaed, a clinical psychologist from San Diego, was celebrating a friend's birthday at Route 91 Harvest festival in Las Vegas. Shiva was standing in the crowd watching country star Jason Aldean on the right side of the stage, the side closest to the Mandalay Bay Casino & Hotel, when she heard some loud bangs that she thought were fireworks.
Instead, she was hearing the first round of gunfire from a man shooting at festivalgoers from the 32nd floor of the Mandalay Bay.
“It was complete chaos,” Shiva said. “People didn't know what was going on, but everyone knew something bad was happening.”
Shiva froze, crouched and “watched people getting shot.” It was a 2.5-hour ordeal for Shiva; she and her small group made their way to the middle of the venue and hid behind some plastic bins, then behind a collapsed grandstand. She made it inside a small hallway of the Tropicana Hotel, but soon after a group of survivors rushed the hallway, screaming “The gunmen are behind us!” Shiva fled the hotel and hid under a car.
“Please don't shoot me in the head or the neck,” Shiva kept repeating to herself, thinking she was going to get shot any time as she moved from the venue to the hotel hallway to under the car.
“Mostly I remember the fake green grass being covered with blood,” she recalled of her time on the festival grounds after the attack, which left 58 attendees dead and more than 850 wounded.
The Route 91 Harvest festival massacre was the second attack on a concert venue in 2017. On May 22, a suicide bomber detonated an improvised explosive device, packed with nuts and bolts to act as shrapnel, just outside of Manchester (England) Arena after an Ariana Grande concert, killing 23.
The conversation around event security, particularly festival security, has intensified since the attacks in Vegas and Manchester.
“One of my project teams was loading in for an event at MGM (hotel in Las Vegas) when the incident took place and they went into lockdown mode,” recalled Dan Donovan, vice president of sports and entertainment for T&M Protection Resources. “We were also brought in after the Manchester Arena incident, so our approach had already changed to increase our security posture with our clients regarding perimeter security and law enforcement presence.
“In all of our discussions with various intel agencies, the consistent theme is increasing our security posture through visible presence extending out from our perimeter and close cooperation with local agencies.
“We have added measures to increase our security posture, presence and procedures from knowing more about the individuals inside of our venues and event perimeters, hardening our perimeters, examining delivery procedures and increasing off-duty law enforcement presence.”
Ed Harris is the vice president of operations for BCM Solutions, which runs security for Daytona International Speedway, Miami Speedway and the Okeechobee, Curveball and Firefly festivals. He said that trying to get ahead of new dangers is always a challenge.
“We have to upgrade our vision as new threats are discovered,” he said. “Since Vegas, there are better protocols and procedures being put in place.”
The Kaaboo festival is in its fourth year at the Del Mar (Calif.) Fairgrounds. Joshua Goodman, a spokesman for the Kaaboo security team, said the Vegas shooting weighed heavily on planning for this year's edition Sept. 14-16.
“Event safety and security is our top priority,” said Goodman. “Kaaboo has implemented industry best practices including bag searches, bag size restrictions, and patron screening via metal detection since we started in 2015.”
After learning about the event in Las Vegas, Goodman's team has been “continually evaluating our security protocols in the ever-changing event security landscape and will continue to do so.”
Goodman said leading up to this year's festival, his team conducted extensive planning sessions with the Del Mar Fairgrounds security team, San Diego County sheriff’s department, the state fire marshal, local fire departments, EMTs and other partners in the community to develop an extensive security and safety plan that included evaluating perimeters and considering new technologies.
Security protocols used to be focused on the venue and people entering the facility, but that focus has been expanded — in both the Manchester and Vegas attacks, the perpetrator was outside the venue. Now, perimeters, nearby buildings and drones are drawing more scrutiny.
“Assessing various risks around our perimeters is part of our planning process.” Donovan said. “In urban environments, nearby buildings are always a challenge. Working with local agencies we do focus on the visual presence of law enforcement as our first approach. Adding that presence is the first deterrent.”
Harris said festivals are particularly challenging because most take place over several days and encourage guests to camp on-site.
“With security getting stricter, a lot of things the guests bring to use in their camping can be looked at as weapons and are being prohibited,” he said. “It's caused some of the fans to be disgruntled and requires guest-service training. Most of the guests are receptive and appreciative and thank us for what we're doing.”
Countersurveillance is now the norm with the goal of finding out risks before an attacker strikes. “We scour the internet looking for anything at all that suggests an event may be forthcoming,” Harris said. “We look for anything that hints at risk.”
Drones continue to be a risk that the live event industry is challenged to address, and it's going to take funds to support identifying the threat, Harris said.
“Venue operators' hands are generally tied by lack of legislation to deny drones within their perimeters or air space,” Donovan said. “Drone operators may be cited if flying within restricted areas, but that isn’t enough. Federal support is necessary.”
Harris said he's had drones on his radar for several years now and is looking at “what these things can carry and how they can be utilized. The (Federal Aviation Administration) is working on different types of regulations, but until they come up with policies, I am looking at what venues can do to mitigate the drone risk.”
According to Donovan, security costs have swelled, but the two attacks have opened up the eyes of promoters and venue operators. “Previously, budgeting for security was far more challenging. Clients are now more willing to spend the money necessary to keep fans safer than ever before,” he said.
It's been a year since the Route 91 mass shooting and there has not been a similar attack. Donovan, Goodman and Harris think increased security, awareness and presence have helped produce that result.
“Our objective in planning security is to deter known threats,” Donovan said. “I believe the industry as a whole is focused on assessing risks to implement measures to deter and deny.”
Communication helps. “We are all trying to improve our operations, and sharing lessons learned between different companies, clients, agencies and operators has been very encouraging,” Donovan said.
“Post Vegas and Manchester incidents, most venue operators have invested in providing greater safety and security for their staff, talent and guests,” he said.
“I am hopeful this trend continues and we all have the resources needed to continue to deter known and unknown risks before another incident takes place.”
Said Harris: “Security has evolved and heightened and may be one of the reasons that no incidents have occurred since last October.”
“It has been heartening to see large events across the country taking security seriously, as we do,” said Goodman. “The fact is that an incident can occur anywhere, but guests are safer when organizers are prepared.”
Festival attendance records from the major festival promoters shows that music fans have not been deterred from attending events since the Route 91 shooting. The hard numbers show that festival attendance has increased every quarter over the past year.
Cindi Reed was covering the Route 91 Harvest festival for the Las Vegas Weekly and was at the event last Oct. 1. She left the site “about an hour before the carnage.”
Reed will not let the massacre on the Las Vegas Strip stop her from attending festivals and was planning to go to the Life Is Beautiful festival Sept. 21-23 in downtown Las Vegas with “all eyes open.”
“I think festivals are as safe as can be,” she said. “It's really a matter of a madman and guns. It's not about any particular venue or genre of music. Next time it will be a mall or an airport. This won't stop until we address the gun culture in America.”
Shiva funneled her grief into starting a support group for survivors; that group has had over 300 people in and out of the meetings in the year since “that awful night.” In the group, Shiva has seen people grieve, process, grow and mostly “help each other.”
But Shiva has not let the events of Oct. 1, 2017, take away the pleasure of attending live events. “I've seen Pink at Staples Center and Evanescence and Chris Stapleton at Sleep Train Arena,” she said. “I was all set to go to Stagecoach but got pulled away when I won an award for starting the group.”
“The experience was horrific, but beautiful,” she said. “I got to see the worst of humanity that night and the best in its aftermath.”