Water balloon fight raises security questions

at the CSF water balloon fight in Lexington, Ky., at Johnson Center field on Friday Sept. 7, 2013. Photo by Emily Wuetcher

By Morgan Eads | News Editor

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At least six people were tackled by student volunteer security officers Friday night after prematurely rushing the William H. Pieratt Intramural Fields, where thousands of people gathered for the annual water balloon fight.

The people were taken down — one put in a headlock — before reaching the middle of the field where hundreds of thousands of water balloons were lined up.

With nearly 11,000 people at the Christian Student Fellowship’s World’s Largest Water Balloon Fight, a national expert said an event of this size should have a detailed security plan that includes trained security personnel.

“Touching somebody and tackling them is a no-no, unless the situation is dire,” said Paul Wertheimer, a crowd management consultant based in Los Angeles. “I don’t think popping some water balloons could be considered dire … I understand wanting to maintain order, but that is why you should have a proper plan.”

Wertheimer graduated from UK in 1972 and was assistant executive director and assistant general manager for the Lexington Center, which houses Rupp Arena. He was involved in investigating The Who concert where 11 fans died from asphyxia from overcrowding in 1979.

Most of the people tackled were led back into the crowd, but at least two were handcuffed and removed from the event, said Brian Marshall, head campus minister for CSF.

“One person could go at it like a Slip ’N Slide and take out 20,000 balloons,” Marshall said about the balloons lined up in the center. “That would mean less balloons and less fun for everyone else.”

The 100-person security team was made up entirely of volunteer Christian Student Fellowship students and alumni, Marshall said.

After a few people attempted to rush the field, others decided to join in, said Kernel photographer Eleanor Hasken, who was at the water balloon fight taking photos.

At that point, UK police were called in, she said.

UK Police Chief Joe Monroe said nobody was actually arrested and currently it is unclear how many were handcuffed and escorted out.

“Our job was to support the CSF security,” Monroe said. “If things got out of control we would step in.”

Monroe said the CSF security team was not trained by or affiliated with the UK Police Department.

Police presence was minimal at the event with four officers, who were stationed outside the event until called in.

UK police also did not approve a security plan for the event, he said.

Marshall said the sight of a strong police presence can incite unrest, so the department did not want to have a lot of police officers present.

The volunteers were given “basic crowd-control tips,” he said.

They were also trained to avoid any physical contact with the participants, though some cases demanded it, said Austin Wofford, water balloon fight coordinator.

Both Wofford and Marshall said CSF officials met with the administration and UK Police to discuss security.

Monroe said he had no knowledge of a meeting about security that involved UK Police.

Everyone was required to sign a waiver upon entry, Wofford said, so CSF would not be held responsible for injuries during the event. This is common practice for such events.

Marshall would not expand any further on what training security officials had.

When the Kernel called one of the security volunteers pictured, all questions were directed to Marshall.

“We work really hard to ensure the students have a safe, fun time at CSF events,” Marshall said.

Marshall said it seems the people who rushed the field were doing so to get attention.

“It’s kind of like someone streaking,” Marshall said. “They just wanted people to look at them.”

Wofford said the people tackled were deliberately causing problems for security volunteers.

“Those people were looking for contact,” Wofford said. “I think some were making a game of it, trying to rush at our staff.”

Marshall said one of the people tackled first threw a punch at a volunteer security guard.

Tackling students could leave the security volunteers and the university liable for any injury, Wertheimer said.

Providing basic crowd control tips does not count as training, he said, but the volunteers cannot be held solely responsible.

“Untrained people — students or not — cannot be expected to know the proper procedure,” Wertheimer said.

He added that most of the blame lies with the people who rushed the field.

“The people who were tackled, whether they were tackled in a proper way or not, should be dealt with,” Wertheimer said. “They are primarily responsible for causing the disturbance of the event.”

Also, the person tackled or the security volunteer could have been hurt, he said.

“The situation could have been much, much worse,” Wertheimer said.

UK spokesman Jay Blanton said any event of this size on UK’s campus must submit an application to Campus Recreation.

Neither UK or CSF would provide a security plan over the weekend to a Kernel reporter.

“As a matter of standard practice, we constantly review events after the fact to see what went right and where improvements, if any, can and should be made,” Blanton said.