Festivals are, by their nature, FUN times, and most people don’t want to spend too much time thinking about and preparing for the medical emergencies, human abuses, and mental health crises that can (and very much do) arise when groups of people gather. However, if you fail to have a plan in place, you have failed your community before you really even served them. Additionally, you could be held liable for your negligence in failing to prepare for certain obvious and foreseeable risks.
An Ounce of Prevention
Check with your venue regarding a few basic factors.
- What are the known hazards in the landscape/environment? (Think about geological features like cliffs, loose rocks, creeks, etc as well as wildlife.)
- What precautions do they already have in place for safety regarding these? What do you feel might be additionally important for your guests to know?
- What does the venue require in terms of safety personnel? Do they have specific types or ratios that are suggested?
- Get a contact list for the local fire department and police station. Calling 911 (especially in a rural area) is not always the fastest and best way to get the right emergency services to your location when a problem arises.
You might also ask if they offer discounted or free admission to the safety personnel. This won’t change the amount of personnel you need, but it can help your event with budgeting (since this can end up being a lot of folks), and passing a deep discount onto the folks providing these vital services can also help you staff the roles to make sure your event (and the people attending it) are protected.
Have Clear Policies and Expectations
I have joked with both my kids (who are now adults) as well as my communities that Rule #1 is “Don’t make me create more rules.” Managing policies, procedures, and violations of those policies is among the most tedious (and drama-inducing) bits of community and festival maintenance that any organizer will be involved in.
Somewhere in your printed materials (website, program, posters you plaster inside the potty doors), you should state your event’s basic policies regarding the big issues. A few of these are:
- Refunds for cancellations/no-shows/removals — If someone can’t attend at the last minute, can they get some/all of their money back? Are their tickets transferable to another event you hold or another person attending this event? If you have to remove a person from the event due to misbehavior, will they be refunded?
- Children — Do children under a certain age require parent/guardian supervision? Are there times/places where children can be “feral/free range”? What happens when a child refuses to follow safety guidelines? What happens when a child is lost? Are minors marked with identifying wristbands/badges?
- Clothing/Nudity — Are there places/times when clothing is optional? Does this policy apply equally to adults and to children? Are only some of the clothes (ie, tops) optional?
- Non-Consent — How are violations of consent handled? Is there a reporting system?
- Alcohol and Recreational Drug Use — Does your event allow or prohibit these? Are some kinds of entheogens allowed? Under what circumstances? (And are you prepared for legal liability if you post/advertise something contrary to state law?)
- Weapons/Firearms — Are these prohibited? Just firearms? Are blades okay?
- Quiet Hours/Zones — Does your event have times or spaces where people can expect a relative reduction in noise?
- Covid-Related Policies — (I’m trusting that we won’t always have to think about these, but for now ….) Are masks required in any spaces? Will you require proof of vaccine and/or recent negative test? When is documentation submitted? If someone learns after event that they were positive during event, will you notify attendees?
Your specific event and the venue will dictate some other considerations for this list, but this is a good place to start. Remember that your FAQ or Policy Page is, in some ways, a first peek at the culture of your event for new attendees. It lets people know what to expect and what is expected of them.
Part of my personal philosophy in event organization is embedded in the idea of creating a safe and sacred container for the work we have come together to do. For Babalon Rising Pan-Thelemic Festival, that is a container for magickal exploration and the revelation of personal Will. For the Women’s Goddess Retreat, that is a container for deep personal healing and transformation within a community of sisters. The FAQ’s for these two events look and feel different, even though there is some overlap in policy, because we are about different goals.
The Safety Personnel
Typical safety personnel for Pagan festivals includes three basic categories of folks. Your event may call them something different, or you may have some additional ones (or subcategories). But this break-down will give you the broad strokes. You can fill in the details to meet your specific needs.
First Aid — These are the folks on duty who have a basic understanding of first aid principles, know how and when to perform CPR, and are generally going to be the first responders to a critical health emergency. They are NOT medical personnel, per se. They are not qualified to diagnose or treat problems, and they shouldn’t be acting in that capacity even if they are qualified to do so in their daily, professional lives. (Doing so can create liability for your event, actually — and maybe for them as individuals.) Most of the time, they will be handing out band-aids and antiseptic for minor cuts and stings, tweezers so folks can remove ticks, wraps and ice for twisted ankles, and over-the-counter pain relievers for minor complaints. For anything more serious, they will largely be directing folks to the nearest urgent care clinic.
Security — Sadly, even at the most mellow and community-driven events, some level of security is needed. When you get groups of people together, a few will behave in predatory or threatening ways. Some of them steal. Some of them get intoxicated and out-of-hand. Some violate personal boundaries. You need some people on your staff who can sort through these thorny issues — sit with folks while they sober up, help them get to bed safely, get detailed reports regarding sensitive issues. They need to be emotionally-intelligent folks who act with discernment and discretion. De-escalation is a big part of this job, as is reinforcing community/festival norms and expectations for everyone’s safety.
Fire-Tenders — If you have a bonfire, someone is responsible for building it and maintaining it throughout the night. In some communities, a whole Fyre Trybe has been born around this part of festival culture, with Fire-Tenders being additionally responsible for keeping people safe from rolling logs and other bonfire hazards. They are trained to build fires that are stable while still being big and bright, and they learn crowd control techniques that let them move in and around the dancers to adjust logs without disrupting the flow of the drumming and dancing. It’s hard, hot work, but the nightlife at the fire is full of both vital magick and also inherent dangers, making this one of the most visible and active safety roles at many festivals.
If consumption of alcohol or other entheogens is generally permitted at your festival, you need to be very clear with your safety personnel about when they can (and can’t partake). An inebriated safety person on duty is likely to put your event at risk (and you at greatly increased liability) if they have to address any sort of problem situation — most especially if that situation escalates to include the fire department, law enforcement, EMS, or the courts. In their defense for laxity on this point, I’ve heard both organizers and staff say things like, “It was such a small event, I figured we could relax the rules.” Let me be clear: the size of your event doesn’t give you permission to be negligent. The court and community will both hold you accountable if something goes wrong. (And there’s no way of knowing when something might go wrong.)
Many events have specific places established on the grounds for attendees to seek help and respite. First Aid and Security might have their own tents or cabins. If not, you need to give extra consideration to how attendees will locate help when they need it. (Nobody needs to hobble around a 25 acre area shouting for First Aid when they have a sprained ankle.)
You’ll also want to think about spaces where people can:
- Give reports regarding consent violations — where confidentiality can be maintained but also where an advocate can be present for the person reporting
- Sober up under observation — preferably with a festival buddy so your staff can be free to carry on with their business
- Cool off during extreme heat — in the shade with ventilation and water to re-hydrate
- Decompress and de-stress — away from sensory overload
Some events include mental health sorts of first aid in their safety personnel and “chill tents” or “Psyche stations” in their event geography so attendees have more ways to cope with feelings of overwhelm, boundary backlash (from pushing their own), processing new and unfamiliar experiences, etc.
When Things Go Awry
Brace yourself for the reality that some kind of hiccup, kerfuffle, or mishap will happen in one of the areas related to “safety and well-being” at your event. A child will get separated from their parent and not recognize how to get back to camp. Someone will repeatedly proposition someone else, even after being told “no.” A cluster of items will go missing from a vendor’s booth. A local preacher will stand across the road from your gates to protest. Someone will get heat exhaustion.
Relax. Nothing is under control.
If you, your community, and your staff have a clear set of policies and expectations, it’ll be pretty straightforward (though not always easy) to navigate the rough stuff. Prepare what you can; put caring and competent people in place; and follow your own guidelines.
Beyond that, just breathe and take things as they come. You got this.
For a closer look at policies and expectations I’ve been part of creating in my own festival communities, check out these resources: