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Teenage Thieves, Fence Hoppers and Smuggled Drugs: On Patrol with Security at Boomtown Festival

Festival bouncers care about you much more than you'd think.
August 13, 2014, 5:00am

Some of the stuff people tried to bring into this year's Boomtown Festival

Security guards are some of the first and last people you see at a festival. They usher you through the gates on the way in and shepherd your filthy husk of a body out into the car park four days later. However, for the rest of the weekend, all their hi-vis vests and contraband buckets tend to fade into the background. Everyone remembers getting busted at the gates for the half ounce hidden in their sun cream; few people recall stuff like efficient crowd flow management.

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As a result, a lot of festival-goers are wary around security – particularly those inclined to bring bags of illegal substances along with them, which, these days, is roughly everyone. So to get a better handle on what a festival security operation entails – and to find out how the people enforcing the rules felt about the people breaking them – I spent some time with the security staff at Boomtown festival this past weekend.

Green Event Security have handled security at Boomtown for the past three years. Alan Fiddes, director of the firm, has overall responsibility for the nearly 500 staff who make up the team this year, and he’s agreed to take me out on a tour of a few key areas on the Saturday night.

An injury sustained by one fence-jumper on the Friday night. He'd been unable to move for hours before security found him.

We start by riding out from the security compound in a big Toyota pickup. Alan winces as we climb in. He hurt his back yesterday in pursuit of some fence jumpers – an occupational hazard, though one he’s usually spared in his managerial role.

We haven't even left the compound before we see three more teenagers being stopped. In the hope of breaking in, they’ve walked through a large field and come straight out in the middle of the security area. One of them is carrying a full-size grappling hook in his backpack, which suggests they put a little more thought into the small picture stuff than, say, anything resembling a proper plan.

The perimeter fence, featuring posters that say stuff like, "Respect the City. No Ketamine".

As far as security are concerned, there are two types of people who break into festivals: genuine fans who either can’t or won't pay for a ticket, and those who sneak in intending to rob other punters. Though security has a brief to keep out both kinds, the latter – the dickheads responsible for stealing the digital camera you were convinced would be safe inside your pillow case – are obviously more of a concern.

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As Alan explains, a strong perimeter fence plays a big part in ensuring safety, as keeping people out is a lot easier than picking them up once they're inside. Boomtown suffered on this front a few years ago; a bunch of people were able to jump the fence, and crime at the festival shot up as a result. Perimeter patrols, observation towers and the fence itself have all been improved since then, but Alan admits that – like basically any British festival (besides the ones with artisanal food stalls and baby crèches) – it still attracts a lot of shifty bastards.

The full area patrolled by security extends way beyond the perimeter fence; in the fields surrounding the festival – about a kilometre or so out – dog teams follow patrol routes all through the night. The dogs bark loudly on command from the handler, which presumably adds another layer of anxiety if you're already creeping through a field at dusk, hoping to scale a 15ft wall with a load of pills tucked into your socks.

While driving through the field, we come across one guy who claims to be taking an evening stroll. He’s miles from the closest town, circling the outskirts of a festival and carrying a backpack, which all seems a little suspicious. He’s also technically trespassing, but after a good-natured chat we leave him to wander off to wherever it is he’s going.

Having cruised around the outside, we head to one of the entrance gates. It’s late in the day so there aren’t many punters passing through, but at least it gives the staff time to chat.

Nat, the gate supervisor, shows me a duct tape sash of nitrous oxide canisters that a guest tried to smuggle in strapped to his legs. The wheelie bin next to her is full of confiscated NOS, which is a headache to dispose of as the metal can’t be safely scrapped until it’s all been de-pressurised. Remember that the next time you try sneaking 240 whipped cream chargers into Reading, you selfish miscreant.

Besides the nifty wearable NOS technique, tubes of Pringles are another popular method of bringing in contraband; according to Nat, “There’s more of them coming through with illegal stuff inside than without.” Pot Noodles and hair gel tubs are also commonly repurposed for the task, though the most imaginative effort staff have seen so far was a stash crammed into a hollowed-out loaf of bread.

As long as it’s judged to be within the bounds of personal use, gate search teams will dump any drugs found into the amnesty box and send their bereft owners on into the festival. There's a difference here between security and police: as far as the cops are concerned, there’s no "acceptable" amount of an illegal substance, because of boring stuff like UK narcotics legislation. So any drugs found by a police unit will result in the holder being taken in for questioning.

Given the fact they’re paid to confiscate drugs, I ask, would the ultimate goal for security be that nothing illicit gets into the festival at all? Alan is surprisingly pragmatic: “Speaking from a company point of view, that would be the ideal,” he says. “Speaking from a personal point of view – and with a lot of experience dealing with people who are drunk versus people who are on other substances – I’d rather deal with someone who’s on MDMA or cannabis any day.”

"Pete the Pet" ended up in the eviction centre for three days running last year, but was let back into the festival each time. The security team took such a shine to him that they still keep his picture on the door.

Next up on the tour is the evictions centre, which – as you'll probably have guessed from the name – is where people go before they're thrown out. It’s a small, floodlit patch of grass at the edge of the site, walled in by the same high fencing as elsewhere and furnished with some portacabins, a loo and a few folding chairs. Not especially cheery, but also not as oppressive as its title suggests.

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There are two ways that people end up here: being caught inside the festival doing something that warrants being chucked out, or being caught outside the festival trying to get in without a ticket. Although it’s security who bring people here, no one from Alan's team can make the final decision as to whether to evict someone from the festival. That falls to Judy, the evictions manager. She’s not under Alan’s jurisdiction at all, in a separation of powers that's meant to prevent any abuse of the eviction process by overzealous security guards.

A group of would-be fence-jumpers waiting to be picked up by their parents

I’m in the middle of talking to Judy when we’re cut off by a group of teenagers being hauled in. There are six of them and they all look about 15 years old. They also have face-paint on their cheeks and pupils that don't look like normal pupils, and were found scouting around the fence for an entry point.

They haven’t done anything wrong, so standard procedure is to drop them back in the nearest town. Unfortunately, because they’re all minors, the evictions team won’t release them until an adult guardian takes responsibility, which means the only way they’re leaving is when one of their parents comes to pick them up.

Understandably, they all look incredibly bummed out. Your parents being called is embarrassing enough; your dad turning up, furious, in his Volvo to cart you and your mates off home while you're all coming down is second only to soiling yourself on public transport.

With all the key operational points covered, Alan hands me over to Jojo – security supervisor for one of the main zones of the festival – so I can follow her around on patrol among the crowds. (Like many of the other security staff, Jojo also has a regular job, but since it involves a degree of confidentiality she asked that her face not be shown.)

For the most part, the action is pretty minimal. We give directions to various people, some of whom don’t really know where they want to go, but just repeat the names of bands and DJs over and over again.

A dispenser and money confiscated from a NOS seller

Besides that, the vast majority of what Jojo does is more welfare than security. There’s less forbidding people from doing things – “We don’t want to be the fun police, after all” – and more checking up on staggering, disoriented people to make sure they’re OK. Even then, provided they don’t seem to be a risk to themselves or others, the most forceful command they get is a suggestion that they might be better off sitting down for a few minutes.

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Since pretty much everyone around us is clearly fucked on something that probably isn't alcohol, would Jojo step in to intervene if she saw someone using drugs? Again, her response is pragmatic: inside the festival, she says, they’ll crack down on anyone who appears to be dealing, but turn a blind eye to most other things – within reason. They’re still tough on NOS, though, possession of which seems more likely to get you pulled up than a bag of white powder.

As Jojo is the area supervisor, we stop to check in on all the other security guards. It’s been a fairly uneventful night up until this point, but no one wants to describe it as "quiet" for fear of jinxing it. Like actors referring to the Scottish play, the other patrols will only say “the Q-word” when I ask how their night’s been.

Everything stays Q-word until midnight, when we find a woman collapsed inside one of the bigger dance tents. She’s conscious but incoherent, and writhing slowly on her back in the middle of the dance floor, which is less than ideal from a crowd safety perspective.

The security team haul her out and prop her up against a fence outside, where she alternates between laughing vacantly and sobbing, until the paramedics arrive. After checking her vitals they conclude that she’s not at risk, and her friends arrive shortly afterwards to take her back to her tent for the night, so we move on with the patrol.

Another hour or so later, a call comes through on the radio that a suspected thief has been caught in the nearby camping area. This is potentially A Big Deal, so we head straight over to where he's being detained. In a backstage area, a lanky teenage boy leans against a car. A girl pointed him out to security as having tried to steal her friend’s bag, so they took him aside and are now going through his belongings to see if he’s in possession anything suspicious.

When the police arrive to take a statement from the girl, she asks if they’ve found the guy who did it, despite the fact he's apparently standing about three metres away from her. It’s hard to know what to make of it at this stage; maybe he was out on the rob, but it also seems possible that it was a case of mistaken identity. Meanwhile, the bag search has turned up a couple of grams of MDMA, and since the cops are now involved that means he’ll be taken to the police compound for booking. Whether or not he really deserved to be pulled aside, his festival is over.

Not long after that incident, the rain starts to pick up. I haven’t got waterproofs or a dry place to put my camera, so I head back to the tent, leaving Jojo to carry on patrolling into the night.

Besides their obvious role in keeping people out of the festival, what I've seen over the past few hours is a security team who are more babysitters than bouncers. There was a real concern for the welfare of the people they deal with (even those being evicted), a high level of tolerance for ridiculous behaviour and a far more sensible attitude towards drugs than you'd find in most government policy.

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Of course, you can't generalise after only experiencing one festival with one security firm, and when you've got a team of 500 staff it's inevitable that you'll get one or two with an attitude problem. But then they're operating in a pretty strange space, being paid to enforce the rules in an area where most people feel like they don't apply. They spend each night of the weekend dealing with the fall out of the worst aspects of festival behaviour, and, for the most part, handle it all in good humour. It's a tough line to walk, but the people walking it could be doing far worse.

@corintxt

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