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How Can Promoters + DJs Keep Events Safe?

On Friday night, the local electronic nightlife community here in the Bay Area experienced a terrible tragedy: a massive fire at an underground venue in Oakland. The event was a showcase of DJs and live electronic musicians. We’ve heard from many local DJTT friends and community members who have been affected by the disaster. Inside, we discuss how event promoters and organizers can make their events safer.

Author’s Note: If you have the means, consider donating to one of the fire relief funds set up for victims and their families of the Ghost Ship fire – one run by the local non-profit Gray Area For The Arts, the other by the Oakland Athletics and Raiders teams.   

From Orlando’s Pulse To Oakland’s Ghost Ship

It’s been an emotionally challenging year for nightlife in the United States. There have been two major disasters (a mass shooting in Orlando in June, and Saturday morning’s fire in Oakland) in places that the dance music community holds sacred. Clubs, after-hours parties, warehouse events, label showcases: these environments allow people an exciting, accepting, and positive escape from reality.

Amanda Allen’s last posted picture on Facebook was of Johnny Igaz, aka DJ Nackt, spinning at Ghost Ship (Image and caption via 48 Hills)
“Amanda Allen’s last posted picture on Facebook was of Johnny Igaz, aka DJ Nackt, spinning at Ghost Ship” (Image and caption via 48 Hills)

Many DJs and promoters in our local scene feel a sense of apprehension about the future of the already suppressed underground scene in San Francisco and Oakland. I’d love to believe that fire departments and city code enforcers could help to educate event coordinators about improving the safety of parties. For now, that feels too optimistic.

Some commentary has done a good job of framing this incident in the larger context of above-board venues continuing to get increased pressure from authorities around the world:

In a well-composed Facebook post about the Ghost Ship fire, Fest300 Creative Director and writer Eamon Armstrong summarizes the crossroads of safety and culture that many DJs, promoters, party goers and underground venue owners face:

How can we come together to make the Bay Area alternative scene safer? For we must preserve it even as Ghost Ship becomes ground zero for a crack down on unconventional venues and living spaces. Even while we hold people responsible on every level we mustn’t give up on the promise of communities like these.”

What Can Event Organizers Do To Improve Safety?

Here’s the good news: there are things that everyone involved in the production of any type of music event can do to make it a safer environment. Here’s a starting list of suggestions – but share your own ideas in the comments and vote up the ones you think need to be featured.

Do A Pre-Event Safety Walk-through

Just like how musicians have sound check, event organizers should always have a final walk-through before any space opens to the public. Have the entire environment set up exactly how it will be when full of people and walk through the entire space. Pay attention to “flow”: can you move through the space? Do you know where you’re going? Where is the closest exit?

Be Your Own Fire Inspector


For a lot of venues, a fire department inspector is their worst nightmare. Aside from police officers, they’re some of the only people who can immediately shut down a venue and evacuate it for seemingly minor reasons.

When setting up for an event, it doesn’t hurt to put yourself in the mindset of a fire inspector. Some of the things to think about when preparing a venue:

  • Are the exits clearly marked? Have two exits, more if possible.
  • Are there fire extinguishers, are they visible, and fully charged?
  • What in the room is combustible? Are there any dangerous potential ignition sources nearby? (electrical wiring near curtains, sound insulation near hot lights, indoor smoking areas)
  • Is the electricity set up in a safe way in the venue?

Make Specific Plans For Disasters

Making a plan forces you to consider things live evacuation routes, fire extinguisher placement, etc.

In almost every type of disaster preparedness, the most important thing is to create a plan before anything happens. Nearly every government agency that deals with disasters focuses on this as the best way to prevent a worst-case scenario. All the people working an event (DJs, bouncers, promoters, bartenders, coat check) should know what the plan is so that they can communicate it to a crowd looking for direction in a crisis.

Here’s a three things to do the first sign of any kind of trouble in a dance music event – from a fist fight to an earthquake:

  • Stop the music at the first signs of trouble
  • Turn on/up the lights
  • Have a microphone ready to be able to ask people to leave, direct them, call security, etc

Take Action Immediately

There’s a well-documented phenomenon in crisis situations (read about it in Amanda Ripley’s The Unthinkable: Who Survives When Disaster Strikes – and Why) where the initial reaction is to unconsciously deny that there is anything going wrong. This wastes valuable time in life-or-death situations.

The first in Ripley’s book is from a NIST study on 9/11 World Trade Center survivors. After the first tower was hit, on average people took six minutes before evacuating – many of them making phone calls, organizing their desks, etc – even after they knew something was wrong:

“Why do we procrastinate leaving? The denial phase is a humbling one. It takes a while to come to terms with our miserable luck. Rowley puts it this way: “Fires only happen to other people.” We have a tendency to believe that everything is ok because, well, it almost always has before.”

Having a specific plan for a disaster, and people who have a responsibility to execute that plan, can help break through these first moments of delay and inaction.

Don’t Be Afraid To Ask For Help From A Professional

If you’re building a space that will regularly be used for events, reach out to an expert to help you plan your space and make it as safe as possible. For underground venues, this doesn’t mean having public inspections (even though that would be the safest route for everyone). Particularly in the wake of the Ghost Ship fire, many safety and fire professionals are eager to help below-code spaces to prevent future disasters.

At the very least, read Gui Cavalcanti’s Medium post, “A Guide To Fire Safety in Industrial Spaces” – he does a great job of emphasizing the things that any space with public assembly events should be paying attention to.

Header image credit: Ashim D’Silva on Unsplash

Share your own thoughts on nightclub and underground safety in the comments below. We’ll feature the comments with the best suggestions.

  • KidCorporate

    If a place has stairs made out of shipping palettes, you probably shouldn’t party there.

  • Chromie Pants

    My Fiancee made this one-page infographic on the bare-minimum stuff any party or event should be aware of (including a party at your house, apartment, or flat!)

  • Nicky H

    Sad indeed, condolences to all involved.

  • Stephen Nawlins

    Sorry to hear about this disaster but…
    …Underground means Underground.

    If you start making Safety Walkthroughs, making Safety Evacuation Plans, mounting Fire Extinguishers, etc…Then your Event isn’t Underground anymore.
    Here in Switzerland back in the 90’s we had lots of such Parties, it was the beginning of Techno Music and illegal raves took place every Weekend in abandonned industrial plants.
    I think I can say no Major incident happened fortunately.
    What killed the Underground Scene was growing of the Population and a rebirth of the swiss economy in the early 2000’s and also government starting talking about the safety of those events.
    With the Needs for industrial facilities and as the cities grew because of growing of Population those Venues just simply disappeared the few left been closed by government for safety reason and the Underground Scene disappeared, Techno moved into Clubs like OXA, MAD, etc… and the Youth turned into consuming sheep.
    I really miss those Kind of Events. I will always remember being in Basels Stücki (a former textile dying plant) one of the most known Underground Venues back then…I remember I was in there when a part of the ceiling fell down ’cause of the Vibrations of the Bass….Oh yes there could have been dead People but honnestly nobody cared that night, everybody saw what happened but we were there for Party…at least noone been hurt.

    Underground Raves back then were a Statement against the Establishment…it was our Woodstock, our Punk-Movement…and if someone would have made an evacuation plan we wouldn’t have cared about it.

    So either the Scene in the US wants to stay Underground (with all the security and safety leaks it involves) either it risks to be part of the Establishment really fast and noone will talk about Underground anymore really fast.
    Holding its identity/intengrity has sometimes a really high Price.
    I guess “The Scene” in the US has to set its priorities.

    • Nicky H

      Underground doesn’t have to mean illegal!
      Pretty tactless saying ‘there could have been dead People but honestly nobody cared…’ after a tragedy like this as well don’t you think?

      • Stephen Nawlins

        It isn’t tactless…sorry…it is just a fact.
        I just related something that really happened back then.

        At some Point I have to say that as “customer” Party-attender I should be intelligent enough to undertand that there must be a safety/security difference if a Party takes place in a Club (which has to be Fire-Police approved and has to follow some laws and rules) or in a former industrial facility and has no official form.
        At some Point the individual is responsible himself if he/she enters into a facility or not. At some Point you have eyes in your head to watch yourself if the Venue has enough escape Exits or not. At some Point it starts being too easy to always reject the fault on others like Promoters…at some Point each one was there on his free will.
        I know it sounds cruel but you can’t always scream for free will and claiming you are an individual able to think and decide by yourself and on the other side reject the fault on others.

        “Underground doesn’t have to mean illegal!” you say…well an Underground Event in an Underground worthy Location will never be legal…it will be authorized based on Agreements and coolness of the law-maker as this Facilities per Definition can’t fullfill the regulations and laws in Terms of sanitary and/or Safety/Security…it will always be a Consensus between the different parties involved.
        And as Long as nothing happens it’s all gonna be alright…how many times Events been authorized by authorities and when the catastrophe happened the official who delivered the authorization been fired and suited afterwards??? (Remember Loveparade 2010 in Duisburg Germany?)

        • Nicky H

          I love your solution – leave it up to the people attending the party to be responsible for the venue safety, genius.
          At some point …. you’ll grow up.

          • Stephen Nawlins

            I don’t leave the responsibility of the venues Safety to the People attending but the choice to attend or not.
            Sometimes it’s a huge Advantage to be used in reading my friend.

          • Nicky H

            When I said responsible for the venue safety I mean’t they wouldn’t go checking those things, – not implementing them – who does that, goes around looking at safety features on a night out?
            I can’t believe you think a group of people going to a party, probably inebriated, would do those things.
            Yes they chose to go, so fundamentally you are correct.
            But to say if something like this happens then the blame rests with them – nothing to do with the promoters, because they didn’t do a health & safety check and they chose to go of their own free will? Really?

          • Dag Sonikku

            Your tone about people attending these parties is condescending. Actually yes most partiers I know (not the super young crowd) will check safety when going to a party. Just like anything in life, it takes experience to know when you are safe and when you are not.

          • Nicky H

            How is it condescending when obviously they didn’t on Friday did they?

          • Dag Sonikku

            It’s never tough to be Captain Hindsight. But knowing the future is another thing. It must be nice to be you

          • Nicky H

            You’re contradicting yourself my friend.

          • Stephen Nawlins

            Well…you must be right having a Master degree in contradiction.

          • Stephen Nawlins

            Not only the tone about attendees…his tone in General…maybe he should tell us what’s his experience of Underground and how Long back in the past his references can reach???
            He sounds like all those politicians who make drugs illegal and never ever even tasted a Joint. How can one discuss a Topic he has only heard about and no practical experience???

          • Nicky H

            You haven’t got a fucking clue who I am you muppet.
            I used to DJ at illegal raves in the 80’s when you were still practising being a fat wedding dj.
            And if you’re wondering why I’m so wound up by you, it’s because my cousin died in the Marchioness disaster – look it up nob-jockey.

          • locodog

            so it’s up to the punters is it? you notice a fire [or anything that could be a danger] at a venue and you just not tell anyone, walk out and to “fuck to with” anyone else, is fine.
            Is being an arsehole a natural talent of yours or something you had practice at?

          • Nicky H

            Where did I say that?
            Nawlins is the one who said that, i said it’s the responsibility of the promoters to make sure the party is safe.

          • locodog

            replied to the wrong bod sorry

      • Dag Sonikku

        You are incorrect. Yes underground DOES mean illegal. It might be tough for someone to understand but you can’t have an underground party that is permitted and legal. That is not how underground works.

        • Nicky H

          Nope I’m pretty sure there are good legal underground parties, at least where I live. Maybe it’s different where you live, on planet moron.

          • Dag Sonikku

            I live in this community that this happened to. I attend as many parties as I can to support the scene. Not sure why your anger is necessary but in the bay area and California in general, it is not easy to throw underground parties. The term “underground” is referring to a party that is in a non permitted venue, the address is not given out until party goers have reached the map point, and the possibility of being broken up at any time is an actuality. If these groups of people were able to gather and have raves in permitted venues, they would. But there are very few and the prices are outrageous. Also if you have any connections to this culture you can understand that an underground party has completely different vibes from a bar or club. Just wanted to clarify your definition of underground. Maybe it is different where you live (planet moron?) but in the bay area underground 10% means “illegal” because in order for it to be underground the venue can’t be permitted. Now being “up to code” is different from being permitted. And all buildings should be up to code. That is a different topic all together.

          • Nicky H

            Well then I apologise. Underground means something totally different here, and as the article was referring to where you’re from I should have understood it in that context.

          • Stephen Nawlins

            Underground means Underground…no matter where…maybe you just should buy the same dictionnary that everyone else uses and not give to words the meaning you gave to them and then expect the other 99,999999999999% of the Worlds Population to understand your meaning.
            Underground is the inner term for illegal raves.
            And I am happy not to be the only one to share this meaning as you made me look like an idiot with your comments.
            Now just one Little question: How many Underground Parties did you attend in your Life??? And when I mean Underground Parties I do not mean a Party where Underground Music is played (this you can Play everywhere also in a Club)
            Just as said by Dag Sonikku, Underground Parties are a Concept by themself if not even a Way of Life: Illegal, non Commercial, mostly industrial facilities, secret Location communicated only short before start of the Party (I remember back in the nineties, all that was known was the first Meeting Point, mostly by night on a Mall Parking lot. You got the indication where to go next, so everyone jumped in the cars and drove over that place, if you were lucky one of the Promoters was there and once he got sure noone was an Undercover Cop everybody had to follow his car directly to the Venue….if unlucky then the whole Corso drove to another Meeting Point with same anti-cop security check….you were driving around half of the night before ending up at a Party).
            So Please Nicky H: Share your Underground-Parties Experience with us!!! Wondering what Underground means in the paralell Dimension you seem to live.

          • Nicky H

            Listen pal, where I live they are not called underground parties.
            They are called free parties or illegal raves. I apologised to Dag for the confusion over the terminology.
            You don’t need me to make you look an idiot when you say things like “Oh yes there could have been dead People but honnestly nobody cared that night” – on a page discussing a disaster like this.
            You may not find it tactless or offensive but that doesn’t mean everybody feels like that.
            I hope you never lose anybody you care about in something like this, because you never get over it – I know.
            Although with your open free-minded outlook to who’s responsible – the people themselves for going to an illegal party – then I suppose you’d take it all in your stride, yeah?

            I ain’t arguing with you any more – you ain’t worth the shit on my shoe.

          • Stephen Nawlins

            Having shit on your shoes speaks books about you my dear.
            When I write that when at this Party I attended part of the concrete from the ceiling fell down nobody cared…well I say it one more time: It’s a fact, nobody gave a shit on it (Maybe the shit on your shoes)…back then in the 90’s (You were maybe not even a sperm at that time) in the beginning of the Techno culture, I attended parties at which someone could have died in the middle of the Dancefloor and nobody would have reacted at all…that’s simply a fact…so many People took pills to excesses, certainly over 80% of the People were on drugs and had their brain fucked up during parties…This is simply not comparable to nowadays.

          • Nicky H

            “I remember I was in there when a part of the ceiling fell down … Oh yes there could have been dead People but honnestly nobody cared that night”
            “At some Point you have eyes in your head to watch yourself if the Venue has enough escape Exits or not”
            “I attended parties at which someone could have died in the middle of the Dancefloor and nobody would have reacted at all”
            ” At some Point it starts being too easy to always reject the fault on others like Promoters…at some Point each one was there on his free will”
            So which is it?
            You say the onus is on people attending to ensure they’re safe, but then contradict yourself saying nobody cares if the ceiling falls down & people die or someone falls down dead on the dancefloor.
            I’ve been to & dj’ed at more illegal raves than you, of that I’m 100% certain because I used to be a resident at a weekly illegal blues club here in Leeds from 1989-1992, as well as many others, & nowhere would that be true.
            “so many People took pills to excesses, certainly over 80% of the People were on drugs and had their brain fucked up during parties”

            That would explain you then.

            NOBODY should die on a night out enjoying themselves. When something like this happens promoters, party-goers & authorities should work together to ensure the chances of it happening again are as minimal as possible.
            NOT have your attitude of ‘shit happens – if you go there you know the risks’.
            Get back to your weddings & stick to playing Milli Vanilli, reminiscing over the good old days & the good old pills which, as you quite rightly note, have fucked your brain up.

          • Stephen Nawlins

            “When something like this happens promoters, party-goers & authorities should work together to ensure the chances of it happening again are as minimal as possible.”

            At least one Thing we agree…but as Long as it isn’t so, Also the Customer has to take care and to refuse attending a place that doesn’t look safe.

            You think I contradict myself….maybe…or maybe it is because I lived it that way, that I attended parties where People didn’t give a shit on what was going on next to them…maybe this is why I expect some self-responsibility from the crowd.
            Maybe it’s because I know the Promoters do not give a shit and it will last another eternity untill they will work with the autorities before something will go on and party-Goers can go to every Party without having to be worried about their Safety.

            I guess noone would get into a rosty and oil losing plane to fly to Holidays, so why attending a Venue which you directly see that security and safety is no provided???
            Why do we always scream for assistance by law enforcement after such disasters and would yell “Scandalous” if authorities would shut down a Party for exactly those reasons???

            I would never put myself in danger when it Comes to Transportation or anything else but when it Comes to Party…no Problem?
            Just tell me why asking Party-Goers to open their eyes and not accept every Venue only in the Name of “Party, Music and good DJs” is scandalous?
            If you don’t grow the People to be self-responsible you grow Generations of assisted Zombies.

          • locodog

            underground means not mainstream

            you can have freeparties that play mainstream music [eugh], it’s not an underground party.

            you can have events playing underground music at licenced legal venues.

    • locodog

      Bullshit, just because a party is illegal means there’s no duty of care?
      Legally it’s debatable, but ethically you’d be a shit for not having some precautions if something terrible was to happen.

      Of course you have to be realistic as far as is reasonable practicable,

      Even at freepartys we do on the hills, we have extinguishers, dangerous drops taped off, and paths marked with an LED balloon
      Part of what keeps a freeparty going once the police have turned up is the cops assessing their duty of care and the risk to life.

      One night, 2 rigs in a remote location, cops turned up, 1 rig got shut down instantly as they’d picked a risky spot to tent up, the other rig, just as illegal, but better sited was allowed to carry on, we actually exchanged pleasantries as they left, good folk, they didn’t want to stop the fun but they have a legal duty of care, and to get a bit hippy about it, morally we all should.

  • Be

    Fire escape ladders can be a valuable addition for venues that are above ground level.

  • Pingback: How Can Promoters + DJs Keep Events Safe? – dPico AUDIOS()

  • Anthony Alonso

    This disaster has lead to a longer timeline in our company’s mission to go back to organizing underground events. Safe exits, fire extinguishers on hand, and proper building code are all things you expect the lessor to have handled. While we have come across many property owners who don’t have all their bases covered, we would still continue going forward anyway. After witnessing this, we no longer will be so careless and wish to expand and bring on two more members specifically to ensure emergency response and safety guarantees.
    I absolutely hate seeing friends and people that I consider to be family affected by what happened at Ghost Ship this past weekend. I sincerely hope that this leads to both local and state governments opening up their eyes to the negative effects of laws such as the rave act, which have made it harder for the underground scene to thrive.
    In order to continue growing and thriving in a safe manner, we need to be able to put our trust back into law enforcement and fire departments to have safe venues, which will not be raided, to keep holding our events.
    Our hearts and prayers are going out to everyone involved and all profits from this months set of releases will be going to the funds created to aid the families of those who passed away and injured in the fire.

  • CUSP

    Try also adding these fire extinguisher balls: