PHOTO: The training room at the Williamson County Public Safety Center was filled with organizers from the Pilgrimage Festival and officials from the city of Franklin and Williamson County as preparations were made for possible emergencies at the event. / Photo submitted


With the countdown to the fifth annual Pilgrimage Music & Cultural Festival now measured in weeks, festival organizers have joined with city of Franklin and Williamson County officials to make sure all are aligned to handle a variety of emergencies that could occur.

Of course, last year’s festival served as a crisis scenario on its own. Severe thunderstorms caused the event to end early on Saturday and to be completely canceled on Sunday, and there was considerable backlash concerning evacuation and communication breakdowns.

Festival and city officials met in the ensuing weeks to address the concerns and particular issues, and then-Franklin Deputy Fire Chief Todd Horton drafted an after-action report that was presented to the Franklin Board of Mayor and Aldermen in January as Pilgrimage co-founders sought a permit for the 2019 event scheduled for Sept. 21-22 at The Park at Harlinsdale Farm.

In mid-July, more than 60 officials from local government agencies and Pilgrimage organizers and representatives met for a table top exercise to review safety and security protocol for the upcoming festival, a practice that is held each year and covers a wide range of scenarios for which preparation is critical. The one-day session was led by Pilgrimage Festival Director Shariff Zawaideh and Franklin assistant Fire Chief Glenn Johnson.

“We have done this type of exercise every year as we prepare for the festival,” said Brandt Wood, Pilgrimage co-founder and producer. “This is truly unique in the festival world and represents the exemplary relationship between this municipality and producers.”

Zawaideh, who moved into the position of festival director this year after serving as director of operations the first four years, said the exercise held July 17 at the Williamson County Public Safety Center took a multifaceted approach to possible emergencies. He added it wasn’t something called for in direct response to last year’s troubles, but the activities certainly focused on lessons learned regarding weather preparedness.

“We definitely learned a lot from last year and took the response to heart on what we did well and what we didn’t do well,” Zawaideh said, “and I feel like we’ve made a lot of great steps this year to ensure that if that every happens again, that it happens in a more controlled and more informed environment.”

As for the exercise itself, the Pilgrimage Festival was represented by its operations team, production team, and representatives from security companies, communications, marketing, public relations, and parking and traffic. In addition to Johnson, the city of Franklin was represented by police, fire, streets, parks, communications and more. The county was represented by members of the Emergency Management Agency and Emergency Services.

“It was pretty awesome,” Zawaideh said of the exercise. “We had 60 folks in the room, broken up into five groups. We walked through scenarios and treated them as an exercise for a series of escalating events that test our resources, our response and our ability to collaborate, with the intention of finding holes in the plan and coming up with things we might not have thought of, resources we didn’t know were available that we might need or resources we could share between the city and the park or the festival and who might have what for different scenarios.

“It was a multifaceted approach, and it’s not as simple as [one incident such as lightning in the area]. What if at the same time there’s a missing child and a car accident on Franklin Road that’s not related to the festival, but now traffic is blocked, or at the same time there’s a cardiac arrest and you need to get in more emergency vehicles while also trying to evacuate?”

Regardless of what emergency might occur at the festival, Zawaideh said the key is keeping festival goers informed.

“When people don’t know what’s going on,” he said, “it creates either fear or panic or just frustration. And so the better we can get them communication, the more prepared they are and hopefully the more understanding they are.”

The Pilgrimage Festival is headlined by Foo Fighters, The Killers and Keith Urban.

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