Part 1: Fire Safety Preparations


When the idea for a repeat of the celebrated Woodstock `69 music festival was first considered in 1992, no one imagined the magnitude of this project. As the concept began to develop along artistic lines, little thought was given to fire protection requirements for this temporary “city in the pasture” in the heart of Ulster County, New York. However, when permission to hold the event was finally sought from local authorities, certain conditions were laid down (in the form of a permit agreement) by the New York State Office of Fire Prevention and Control, Ulster County Bureau of Fire Control, and Centerville Fire District.

Among other things, the permit agreement required that all of the various promoters comply with all applicable aspects of the New York State Uniform Fire Prevention and Building Code and the National Fire Protection Association (NFPA) standards, as well as the local ordinances imposed by Ulster County and the Town of Saugerties. The agreement also required the promoters to hire a fire protection consultant.


After months of neglectful foot dragging on the part of the original security contractor, that contract was revoked and new players were brought into the game. At a crucial time when plans already should have been in place, little or nothing in the realm of fire protection or fire suppression had been accomplished.

The event was scheduled to run for a period of three days (August 12-14), and a record-breaking crowd of 250,000 was expected (400,000 attended). Construction of the temporary 553-acre city was proceeding rapidly–so rapidly, in fact, that the local town code official protested the fast pace because he had yet to receive the plans for the installation of electrical generators and bulk propane storage. While more than 100 temporary wood-and-canvas structures had already been erected, the required affidavits pertaining to the fire retardant qualities of the materials involved had yet to be provided.

The town code official eventually solicited the cooperation of the New York State Office of Fire Prevention and Control. It was at this point that we entered the picture as the required fire protection consultants.


Sigma International Group, under the direction of General Robert Disney (U.S. Army ret.), was contracted to complete the security planning. General Disney quickly realized that there was a long road from the conception to the implementation of this huge undertaking. As we had a previous arrangement with Sigma International, we were contracted on July 9, 1994, and asked to handle the fire safety planning and implementation required by the permit agreement.

Some plans for the response of the local emergency agencies–such as EMS and police–had already been implemented by the original security contractor. However, nothing was locked in place for the organization of an internal fire brigade or the coordinated response of the Centerville Fire Department (CFD). With the event only 33 days away, equipment still needed to be procured and employees organized.

Realizing it would be impossible for one person to accomplish all of the work in so little time, I recruited a colleague, Jack J. Murphy, Jr., to assist me. He began organizing the fire brigade and coordinating the response of the local fire departments.


Enlisting help. As a first step, I met with Chief William Swart of the CFD to ascertain his department`s response capabilities. It was agreed that, in the event of a fire or emergency on site, the CFD and the internal fire brigade would be immediately notified. The brigade could initially handle most of the events that might occur–members each had a minimum of five years of experience as firefighters and were certified at the Firefighter II and Pump Operator levels. This way, Centerville could respond without delays and assume command of an incident immediately on arrival.

Helistop safety. Because the plans required three helicopter landing pads on site, it would be necessary to provide stand-by fire protection in case of a mishap with a takeoff or landing. We therefore planned to supply a mini pumper with foam capability to these sites during takeoffs and landings. There were plans for numerous flights on a daily basis to shuttle VIPs in and out. At one point, it was reported that President Clinton`s daughter would be attending. Many of the star performers were to arrive and depart via helicopter. Part of the plan was to provide medevac choppers to aid in potential life-threatening illnesses or injuries.

Water supply. Two one-million-gallon storage tanks–located approximately 300 to 400 feet up on a hilltop behind the stage area–were to serve as the water supply. There was also to be one temporary hydrant on the line that would supply water to storage tanks. Naively, Jack and I felt assured that we would have enough water to meet almost any contingency. We were later informed by the Ulster County Department of Environmental Protection that this water was to be used exclusively for domestic use, as DEP feared that the water could be contaminated if used for fire purposes. Therefore, we planned on carrying sufficient water by our four brigade apparatus to deal with any incipient fires until drafting operations could be set up at the reservoir adjacent to the complex.

It can now be said that Jack and I made our own secret plans to access the domestic water should the need for a large supply arise. We felt that we would ultimately be forgiven if we could demonstrate that our concerns were at least as valid as those of the environmentalists.

Haz-mat preparations. Because there were to be enormous quantities of hazardous materials (bulk propane, diesel fuel, gasoline, etc.) on site, we made plans with the Ulster County Bureau of Fire Control for a coordinated response of its regional hazardous-materials team. We also worked out plans with the local Saugerties Police Department and the New York State Police to facilitate the response of the regional team.

Medical care. A 150-bed field hospital was built on site. The hospital was to be staffed around the clock by doctors, nurses, and 350 (total) EMT personnel. Although Jack and I were not involved in that planning, we did need to plan for adequate fire protection for this facility, which entailed the distribution and placement of fire extinguishers and smoke detectors. In addition to the field hospital, there were to be 13 staffed first-aid stations in the complex.

Potential dangers. There were also plans for two separate stage areas that would each contain mountains of plywood, electrical cable, scenery, and special effects materials (including pyrotechnic devices). Because of the large-fire potential, these areas were of major concern. It was therefore necessary to closely scrutinize this part of the project. Extinguishers were placed strategically throughout the stage and production areas.

A gigantic fireworks display was also scheduled for the Saturday night closing (August 12). Jack and I were very insistent that every possible safeguard be implemented, as several large residence exposure buildings and the stage area were within the fallout area. It was agreed that the closest structures (excluding the stage) would be wet down immediately prior to the shoot and that the area would be patrolled for any resulting brush or grass fires. With the safety of the hundreds of thousands of people in the audience in mind, fire apparatus would be provided to escort the fireworks to the shot location.

Access roads. Plans were made to provide three separate access roads for the convenience of the local fire department. We discovered, however, that a bridge along one route was not strong enough or wide enough for the fire apparatus. The bridge had to be completely rebuilt from the footings to the planking, and the approach had to be widened to accommodate the apparatus. The bridge remains today as a monument to Woodstock `94.

Addressing code concerns. The local code official who had protested earlier was now threatening to withhold approvals of the various electrical, propane, and food installations if his concerns were not addressed. Jack and I were finally able to address his concerns by first demanding then ascertaining by physical checks that all installations were in accordance with NFPA standards. Necessary affidavits from the various contractors to that effect also were obtained as required. The New York State Office of Fire Prevention and Control was of immeasurable assistance in impressing on the promoters the need for suitable fire protection. A good working relationship with event security also was critical to our success in enforcing fire codes.

Apparatus and equipment. The next step was to develop a list of apparatus and equipment that would be needed. For a primary response vehicle, we chose a full-size Class A 1,250-gpm pumper with a 1,000-gallon booster tank. We also chose three mini pumpers with four-wheel-drive capability and 250-gallon booster tanks for quick response to off-road situations–such as grass and brush fires–and to provide support for the three helipads.

We contracted with 21st Century Fire and Ambulance of Mount Marion, New York, to provide masks and protective bunker gear for structural firefighting on a short-term lease basis. This arrangement proved to be the only expedient available to us during this late stage in planning.

Internal fire brigade. Our next major decision concerned the size of the internal fire brigade. We planned to have two 12-hour shifts each day of the event. For the three mini pumpers, we would need two people each. The pumper required four persons, giving us a total of 10 persons per shift, not including the response coordinator. Since we chose our 20 personnel from a pool of volunteer firefighters trained in the use of self-contained breathing apparatus and qualified as structural firefighters, they required minimal familiarization training (which saved us valuable time).

So that the CFD`s ability to maintain normal fire protection would not be inhibited, we refrained from recruiting any local firefighters.


At times Jack and I had difficulty obtaining approvals for the necessary funding. Each time we had to get an appropriation approved, we had to prove the need. Not only were we planning the fire protection for a small temporary city, we were banging our heads against a bureaucracy created by the promoters.

By late July and early August, ticket sales were not meeting expectations, and Woodstock Ventures began to hedge against a major financial loss by cutting back on expenditures. The State of New York and other local authorities had made the fire protection requirements very clear, and the short funding was making it difficult for Jack and I to meet our objectives.

Fortuitously, I one day spotted a vehicle in the compound with an emergency light bar on the roof and a license plate indicating that the owner was a firefighter from Aiken, South Carolina. I tracked down the car owner, Robin Ellis, and found him to be a kindred spirit who was highly interested in fire protection matters. He also happened to be the assistant producer of the event! To make a long story short, after speaking with him, much red tape was cut and the appropriations for the materials we needed became available.


The lessons learned from the planning of this event have broadened our perspective a great deal. We have learned that many people in all levels of our society do not understand the importance of fire protection. To many, fire protection is an expensive and petty annoyance with no real intrinsic value–unless, that is, something disastrous happens. There are many who also do not understand that preparedness is your greatest ally in fire safety. There is an old adage that states, “They who plan are prepared for the unexpected”; that certainly is true in this case. n

Woodstock `94 planners expected approximately 250,000 attendees; 400,000 showed up. The magnitude of the event brought with it high-order-magnitude fire protection challenges to be handled in a compressed time frame.

Two one-million-gallon tanks provided domestic water supply for the event. The county environmental agency feared contamination of this water supply should it be used for firefighting purposes, so the brigade carried enough water for an initial attack and was prepared for drafting operations; however, fire deputies were prepared to access the supply should a major fire incident occur.

The Woodstock Fire Brigade, staffed by volunteer firefighters certified to the Firefighter II level, was equipped with a 1,250-gpm pumper with a 1,000-gallon booster tank; three four-wheel-drive mini pumpers with 250-gallon water tanks, one of which was a foam unit (one of the mini pumpers is shown in the background of the bottom photo); and two “mules”– one for command access throughout the grounds and one with the Class A pumper. Firefighters were equipped with full bunker gear, SCBA, and portable radios.

JOHN J. O`ROURKE served as fire safety director of Woodstock `94. A former chief of department of the City of New York (NY) Fire Department, he is now the president of O`Rourke Associates.



One week prior to the operational phase, we were still tackling the seemingly insurmountable laundry list of code compliance issues. John O`Rourke, the fire code officials, and I were making every attempt to create a code-complying mobile metropolitan center that would vanish quicker than it was erected. Of course, we also wanted to provide the safest possible fire environment for the festival. Fire safety concerns were addressed right down to the hour of the opening act.

Among other things, the code compliance concerns affected food distribution sites, helistops, access roads, the employees` lodging area, pedestrian bridges, fire brigade familiarization training, apparatus deployment, the command center, communications, the fireworks display site, and water supply.


Six food pods for the public and five private food-service centers were spread out over the nine-square-mile area. Thirty-eight independent vendors had to be inspected for liquefied petroleum gas connections, and all exposed copper tubing and black iron pipe had to be supported and protected from physical damage. Large boulders were placed around the LPG tanks–30 550-pound pressurized vessels and 70 100-pound cylinders–for protection from vehicles. The larger LPG vessels also required noncombustible bases. Some cooking stations were quite elaborate: One even included a roll-off modular kitchen unit with a built-in automatic foam-suppression system.

Since three LPG tanks were interconnected at each cooking site, the area had to be secured to prevent employees and customers from traversing through it. Initially, we requested snow fences for this purpose, but they never arrived, so we isolated the tank areas with rock barriers and barrier tape. In addition, “No Smoking” and “No Open Flame” signs had to be posted, brush and grass had to be cleared, emergency shutoff valves had to be identified, and generators had to be relocated at least 25 feet away from the LPG tanks, as required by code. An empty, 3,000-gallon LPG truck with a 24-hour on-call technician was located in a secured area on-site should a product transfer be required.


A fenced-in heliport with three landing pads, constructed under the strict guidelines of the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA), was built on the western perimeter of the site. This controlled location had three access points–one for the entrance, one for the egress, and one for emergency access only. Flight procedures were developed by the National Guard, the State Police, and the FAA, while protocols for landing and takeoff were controlled by an on-site flight command post.

Medevac flights would take priority over all scheduled VIP flights. A prearrangement was made to have standby fire protection for all medevac flight landings (at Benedictine Hospital). A request was made for on-site helicopter fueling; however, the fire brigade had limited fire protection resources, and we could not comply on-site with the NFPA standard pertaining to this request. Therefore, a fire directive was presented to make the refueling off-site at an appropriate airport. Provisions also were made for an undisclosed landing area in the next county.


A crossroad network was created to circumvent the two stage areas. Chain-link fencing separated both the North and South fields and the camping areas, separating spectators from the roads. To maintain road access for emergency vehicles and truck deliveries, several pedestrian bridges were erected over the roadways. These temporary spans met height clearance for accessible trailers and were equipped with preventive barriers to protect against traffic.

Delivery traffic was directed in the South Gate and out the North Gate. An emergency access road had limited traffic for entrance only. The roadways to the hospital and helistop also had restrictive traffic.

At times during the festival, the two-way roads around the stages became gridlocked–for as long as an hour or two at a time–as food deliveries and music bands and equipment were shuttled in and out. When this occurred, the fire patrols were discontinued and stationed in strategic locations. A wider roadway with a designated third lane for emergency vehicles would have provided better accessibility.

Two separate passes were required to get through security roadblocks, and each on-site sector needed a special code to enter the area. Sometimes security codes were changed unannounced, and our firefighters had to be “resourceful” to gain entry to all sectors.


The employee lodging area (which housed 7,500 people) was one mile south of the festival. Employees were to sleep in large circus tents with four, tall-masted poles and side flaps down. Each tent was 400 feet long and 200 feet wide and had only two exits–one at each far end. Because of the limited sleeping space, bunk beds were installed in two of the tents. These combustible beds were built across the full 200-foot width of each tent (flap to flap), thus blocking clear passageway to the exits. In addition, aisle space between each row of bunks was only two feet. To compound matters even further, each bunk was provided with a two-inch polyurethane honeycomb-foam pad. These flammable pads, when field-tested by the fire official, were completely consumed in a matter of seconds.

The fire official and the state health department, who had jurisdiction over temporary shelters, voiced their opposition to these sleeping facilities. An accord then was reached to meet the following sleeping provisions:

1. All tents were to have all four side flaps in a rolled-up position. (This would provide egress for each aisle on all sides.)

2. Generators were to be installed around the tents` perimeters, far enough away, to provide emergency lighting and illuminated exit signs.

3. Single-station smoke detectors were to be installed throughout all sleeping facilities. The fire brigade included the paramedic/medical staff areas and the in-patient hospital.

4. The two bunk sections were to be removed to provide a 12-foot center aisle space.

5. A 24-hour firewatch patrol was to be provided. It would report any hazardous conditions to the Fire Brigade Command Post immediately via portable radio.

6. A no-smoking policy was to be in effect for the sleeping tents.

7. The flammable sleeping pads were to be removed.

While the bunk beds were being dismantled, a mini fire pumper was relocated to the site as a precautionary measure.


Preparations also were made for the On-Site Command Center to receive a Doppler radar weather report every 30 minutes. Although this information was intended for use in helicopter landings, it also would prove useful in providing early warnings of rainstorms during the concert. Production crews would be able to adjust the canvas roofs above each stage (to help prevent water accumulation), and a scaffolding crew would be prepared to climb to stage overhangs to clear off any water that did accumulate.

At one point in the weekend, the Doppler radar reported that severe thunderstorms with 35-mph winds were approaching the valley. Of everything we would face over the course of the festival, the thought of these storms invading the densely-populated open field would be the most frightening. While lightning protection had been installed for the five-story stages and equipment towers, little (if any) protection could have been provided to the field occupants. Fortune was on our side, however: Though it rained, the violent storms bypassed the area.


An on-site fire brigade was established to provide fire prevention and incipient fire control services for the festival. It would receive support services from the CFD. A minimum of 10 firefighters and one supervisor from the brigade were to be on duty for every 12-hour shift.

Four firefighters were assigned to a Class A pumper, while two firefighters were assigned to each mini pumper. On the Wednesday before the festival (August 10), the fire brigade received eight hours of training and site familiarization. As indicated, all fire suppression equipment was leased; therefore, it was necessary to acquaint the firefighters with each apparatus. Two full days prior to the concert (August 10), the fire brigade became active and would remain active until August 16.

Over the course of the festival (August 10-16), the on-site fire brigade responded to 114 calls. Twenty-four calls were for fire incidents, including rubbish, vehicle, and portable kitchen duct fires. Only one fire required the assistance of the local fire department. The brigade also responded to 16 EMS assistance calls, 24 good-intent calls, 12 hazardous-conditions calls, 35 service calls, one vehicle accident, one fallen power line, and one mutual-aid call.

At one point in the weekend, a high-tension power line fell onto a parked VIP bus, entrapping the band Primus until we could isolate the power line. At another incident, a car struck a gas pump at a nearby gas station, and we used the on-site foam unit to assist the CFD.

In the end, the on-site fire brigade proved its worth by preventing any incipient fires from becoming larger ones.


The fire apparatus–which consisted of one Class A pumper, two four-wheel-drive/mule vehicles (ATVs), and three mini pumpers–were deployed into four sectors.

The Class A pumper and one ATV were assigned near the command post (this central location enabled the pumper to respond to all incident calls); the second ATV was assigned to the fire command officer; one mini pumper was assigned to the south sector and campgrounds; a second mini pumper (a foam unit) was assigned to the helistop and western camp sites; and a third mini pumper was assigned to the north sector and campgrounds.

The ATV stationed with the Class A pumper would give this unit more flexibility when dealing with incipient fires–especially within the participant areas and the camping grounds. Once the Class A pumper was committed to an incident, a mini pumper would relocate to the central station/command post. This repositioning provided for essential coverage during an incident.

An initial fire response would be handled by the sector unit and backed up by the Class A pumper, the CFD patrol assigned to the site, and the on-duty personnel stationed in their firehouse. Eight CFD members who patrolled the site were equipped with a two-wheel ATV, portable radio, and standard fire protection gear.

As you know, you can`t run a vehicle without fuel. A $500 cash deposit had to be given to a local gas station for the fire apparatus fuel account. A separate fuel arrangement was made to refill all ATV units on-site.


A friendly fire coalition was created to establish controlled campfire procedures. This coalition consisted of the Woodstock fire directors, the State Office of Fire Prevention, the CFD, the Woodstock promoters, and the Rainbow people.

The Rainbow people are an assembly of fire worshippers who planned to hold a ceremony of adoration each night that would commence at sunset and end at dawn the next day. Two firekeepers would be posted to stand watch over the ceremonial fire. After reviewing the preliminary site (a six-foot-wide, two-foot-deep pit surrounded by stones), further guidelines were established to permit several controlled fire sites.

The Rainbow people would make sure all unauthorized fires on the campgrounds were extinguished, inviting the involved parties to attend their approved fire site. Over the course of the festival, the assistance of the Rainbow people proved to be a valuable asset for controlling unwanted fires set by other spectators.


Two days before the festival, an on-site command center became a functional 24-hour base. The on-site fire and security command had liaisons from the state and local police, state health agency, EMS, emergency management agency, and U.S. Coast Guard.

The on-site command post was networked with two off-site command centers. One housed the state departments of Police, Transportation, and Thruway Authority. The second housed the State Office of Fire Prevention; fire coordinators from Ulster, Duchess, and Sullivan Counties; local fire companies; and County EMS. All three command centers would receive communications via hardwire and/or a cellular telephone system and radio base stations; the on-site command consisted of 1,600 portable radios with frequency capabilities of up to 17 channels on some radios. The fire brigade and the CFD were assigned to 18 portable radios. Each radio had four frequencies to monitor the on-site fire brigade, CFD, security, and on-site command.

Prior to the concert, radio traffic was minimal. However, during the concert, the security channel was inundated with calls that did not concern the command center. For this reason, the radio frequencies were altered, the base station was upgraded, and an extra portable radio was placed at the command base station to monitor fire calls. (While this method proved adequate for our specific situation, the need for sound fireground communications should not be overlooked in a command base station network.) In fact, fire responses increased so dramatically (67 were received during the height of the concert), that we had to stop escorting gasoline and LPG deliveries altogether to respond to all of the calls.

Because of the site`s great size, military-style grid maps were created to assist in establishing the normal four ICS sectors. The site was divided into coordinates from A to P and 1 to 11. The Command Center dispatched the sector unit to the coordinates indicated on the map.


Several pyrotechnics musical acts and a major fireworks display required fire watches. Working together with the performers, a pyrotechnic specialist, and stage security, we were able to post several firefighters on the stage.

The main fireworks display was scheduled for Sunday morning at 0330 hours, after the rock group Aerosmith performed. We insisted, both before and during the fireworks display, that NFPA codes be exceeded (we followed the more stringent New York City laws). Occupants were cleared of the fireworks area to a radius of 600 feet, and the area was secured. Wooded areas on the perimeter of the fireworks site were cause for some concern; if it did not rain, we planned to wet them down before detonation (it did rain).


At the festival, we learned that the proper planning for an event of this magnitude must commence at its inception–not 33 days before opening day! Because there are so many details to be addressed, time is your most valuable asset. Some lessons learned from Woodstock `94 follow.

A separate fire protection budget should be controlled by the fire director.

Promoters should honor their contract for limited space occupancy–an open-gate policy puts unnecessary pressure on all emergency services.

It is a good idea to install back-flow preventers on the potable water tanks and increase the number of fire department connections throughout the site. (This health department requirement for potable water is a blessing in disguise for the fire service.)

Provide the appropriate fire equipment and an adequate number of fire service personnel, including specialists in rappelling, extrication, aircraft/rescue, confined space rescue, hazardous-materials response, wildfires, and fire codes.

Preplan your water supply. Work with the local fire department. Ensure that you can get an adequate supply to projected target hazards in a timely

manner. Consider installing a dry hy-

drant if your major water source is a body of water on-site.

Establish the command center far enough from the stage so that communications are not impeded by the show`s high noise levels.

Provide sufficient time for downsizing the event so you get back all the equipment for which you`re responsible.

Enlist the assistance of governmental and other fire agencies to provide you with “political clout” when enforcing fire codes and firesafe objectives.

Expect large quantities of LPG, oxygen tanks, etc. at large events. Follow the fire protection recommendations established in the National Fire Codes®.

Do not overlook the major fire and explosion hazard presented by densely parked mobile homes and other vehicles, which, in addition to gasoline, may be stocked with kerosene, propane, etc.

Mass sleeping quarters (barracks, tents, etc.) without sufficient egress routes are a recipe for disaster. These sleeping quarters must be code-compliant and firesafe.

Weather can have a great impact on fire emergency operations; access an accurate weather reporting service.

Plan for access roads exclusive to emergency vehicles, if possible, or else have contingency plans for the inevitable clogged access road. If possible, have dedicated fire lanes. If roads are not paved, have a road crew/gravel truck available to avoid inaccessibility from rain/mud.

See the “big picture.” While it is impossible to control the movements of thousands of people at an outdoor event such as this, remember your most important objective: Do not allow unfortunate incidents to become large disasters.

Persistence, effort, and luck allowed us to accomplish our goals. We were also very fortunate to have the assistance of many people from the fire service who shared our concerns, such as Byran Stevens from the State Office of Fire Prevention; Duncan Wilson, the Ulster County fire coordinator; and the CFD under Chief Bill Swart. We could not have been as successful without their input, cooperation, and assistance. n

Special thanks to the Woodstock Fire Brigade members, who took the watch to preserve “the City in the Pasture” and who deserve much gratitude for their unselfish acts.

JACK J. MURPHY, JR., served as deputy fire safety director for Woodstock `94. He is a fire safety engineer at The New York Hospital/ Cornell Medical Center and a deputy chief/fire marshal of the Leonia (NJ) Fire Department. In addition to being a vice president of the New York City Fire Safety Directors Association, he is an advisory board member of the Bergen County (NJ) Fire Academy and John Jay College (NY) Fire Science Institute.

No posts to display