Can Small Clubs Ever Be as Safe as Stadiums?

When it comes to working venue security, there isn't much Bryan Meckelborg hasn't done. He's coordinated crowd safety at Super Bowls, the Grammys, the Oscars and some of the country's largest music festivals. 

But as the devastating shooting that took place in Orlando over the weekend demonstrated — when a gunman opened fire inside Orlando gay bar The Pulse, killing 50 people — it may be difficult to ever completely cover clubs and concert venues from the risk of violence.

"When you look at the Bataclan [last year in Paris] and now at Pulse, in both those cases the bad guy walked right in with an obvious weapon. It was easy to see him coming and there's still not much you can do," says Meckelborg, who runs a communication and security company called Brockcom in Long Beach. "If somebody comes in firing, there's not a lot you can do unless you have steel blast doors that can shut at a moment's notice — and that's just not practical."

Meckelborg will be on hand in Dallas on June 24 for the Vans Warped Tour kickoff at Gexa Energy Pavilion, as Brockcom provides security communication equipment for all 45 stops on the tour. He got his start working security at punk shows in the 1980s. Up until two years ago, he ran security operations for Electric Daisy Carnival, which is set to take place this weekend in Las Vegas and, attracting 130,000 people annually, is the largest music festival in North America.

Protecting against security threats in a small club or concert venues, however, poses a unique challenge even for someone like Meckelborg, who does independent consultant work for another concert venue in Dallas that wished to not be identified for this article.
"When you get to a bigger stadium, you can put a little more money at it because it's a bigger budget," Meckelborg says. "With a club, you got one door. From the sidewalk to being in the venue, it can be 10 feet, so you don't have a lot of room to work with. You look at what they do with the Super Bowl, they're doing screenings and checks at the railway station two miles from the venue."

Meckelborg says that one line of defense — the front door — might not be enough. "I would tell clubs, do the best you can by staffing the front, securing the front; make sure you're patting people down and looking for those things," he says.

Yet even having an armed guard at the front door wasn't enough in Orlando, he says "[The Pulse shooter] was very familiar with the club, he was a regular there," he says. "He knew the one guy who was armed and that was the first guy he shot."

Meckelborg says the best line of defense that clubs and smaller venues have is to work closely with their local police departments. "Sometimes clubs have an insular relationship with the police — in other words, they try to stay under the radar — but I think the opposite needs to be true," Meckelborg says.

The resources offered in each city can vary greatly, depending on the police force. "Some police forces are outstanding in that, if you want to work with them, they'll work with you and help you come up with plans and really go out of their way."

The Dallas Police Department did not respond to multiple requests for comment on what programs and services are made available to local venue owners. Meckelborg, however, says there's usually some overlap with the protocol  for other emergencies like fire evacuation, which requires easy access to exits.

Off-duty police officers can also be a good addition to the venue's existing security staff.  Last year, Dallas police chief David Brown told the Observer that the city approves and facilitates these deals. "We have an off duty employment section for the business owner," he said. "He’ll call the department, and say 'help me I need the officers.' And we will advertise that request and an officer will decide, I’ll work that." He added that all off-duty work is approved by the department.
But the relationship between police and nightlife industry should be tight, even without the extra pay. "Police and club owners need to really have a good working knowledge of how to get a hold of each other, how to give a heads up when things look like they might be wrong," Meckelborg says. "And then you need to allow police the opportunity, when they do respond, to know exactly what's going on inside the club and where to go and what the floor plan is."

On a much larger scale, that's exactly what happens at the music festivals that Meckelborg works on. For events like the Oscars or the Super Bowl, he says, "An entire day is set aside in advance of the event where they're role playing for the event. They set up a command post and actually work through different scenarios with every agency represented."

On a smaller scale, he sees room for such practices to be implemented by clubs as well: "If clubs owners were willing, if the police force were willing, they could certainly copy some of those planning characteristics."

In Dallas, some clubs are already considering additional training. "The security guys are assigned zones and know where the fire exits are in their zones," says Don Nedler, owner of Lizard Lounge and Red Light Lounge. "But I think we're going to have to  discuss live shooter drills."

One thing that Meckelborg — who prefers not to see armed guards beyond the front door in order to "limit the number of weapons floating around inside crowded places" — isn't a proponent of is metal detectors.

"Metal detectors tend to make security lazy. You just wait for the beep," he says. In the end, there may not be much better defense than a heads-up security staff that knows how to execute the basics. "To me, a pat down is more effective than anything else. Look the person in the eye, pat them down for weapons, talk to them — that's going to get you a lot further than anything else."
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Jeff Gage
Contact: Jeff Gage