A message from Athens County EMS Chief Rick Callebs
For most people, Halloween is a signature late October event that means kids dressed up in a variety of costumes, going door to door for “trick-or-treat” or “Beggar’s night”, depending on the vernacular where you live.
In Athens County, Halloween is something different. It’s the single largest special event in the region and perhaps all of southeastern Ohio. The Athens Halloween Block Party, taking place on the streets of uptown Athens, is an internationally known event that can bring upwards of 20,000 people to our area for the weekend. Hotel rooms are booked several years in advance, student housing turns into an impromptu bed and breakfast for as many people as you can fit in the building, and alcohol is purchased by the keg and the case.
The party, an annual event since 1974, involves large numbers of (mainly) college students who dress in costume, walk the uptown streets, drink alcohol, visit with and make new friends, go to the bars, attend house parties, and repeat until you are arrested, you are taken to the hospital by EMS, or the event is over. Fortunately, most partygoers choose the third option and simply enjoy a fun weekend with friends.
EMS must plan for the others.
Athens County EMS operations at the Block Party involve four areas of specialization. We have six dedicated ALS ground transport vehicles with extra staffing to manage patients who require medical treatment and transportation. We have several “quick response” teams that carry backpacks and can move quickly through the crowd, locating, assessing, and treating patients, and coordinating transport with EMS vehicle crews when necessary. It is not uncommon to escort or physically carry patients to a waiting ambulance a block away due to crowd congestion.
The third element is a self-contained communications center that monitors the status and whereabouts of every EMS employee working the event, along with dedicated event ambulances and the EMS vehicles at our outlying stations that may need to be called into Athens when resources on Court Street are depleted. The communications center also serves as a warming station for our crews, giving them a place to sit down, drink coffee, and finish ePCR run reports. We also have first aid supplies available for the partygoer who needs a Band-Aid or has a minor medical issue. The quick response teams are based at the communications center and normally handle these minor issues.
The final element is the Command. Each area of the operation is overseen by an Assistant Chief and there are designated leaders for each ambulance and response team. The EMS Chief provides a second level of oversight and coordinates with law enforcement, fire, 9-1-1, city and university officials as the event progresses. Recent Halloween Block Parties have been relatively tame, but several past celebrations were marred by unruly crowds, throwing bricks and beer bottles at responding emergency vehicles, gunshots in the crowd, overcrowded bars, and a structure fire on the outer perimeter.
All agencies establish a secured unified command center in City Hall at the beginning of the event, bringing together political leaders and department heads along with a dedicated PIO to handle media requests, especially if the event takes a turn for the worse.
Preparation for Halloween is a year-round process, with planning meetings starting in late summer. Event security is a priority, and over 100 law enforcement officers from across the state are hired for the weekend. K9 officers, mounted (horse) units, bomb-sniffing dogs, the Highway Patrol’s Special Response (Riot) Teams, undercover liquor control officers, city fire officials, and the Ohio Fire Marshal’s office complement local law enforcement officers from the city of Athens, Ohio University, and the Athens County Sheriff’s Office. The goal is to make the event as safe as possible.
We are fortunate that our only hospital is one mile from Court Street, the epicenter of the event. The 20 bed ER normally swells to capacity during the Block Party and extra staff, including physicians, are scheduled to address the influx. Radio rooms at the Athens PD and Ohio University PD are double staffed for the night. Athens County 9-1-1 brings in extra telecommunicators, providing a dedicated dispatcher to coordinate countywide ambulance dispatch with the needs of our special event communications center. Our county health department and Emergency Management Agency are on standby with additional resources if needed.
Our operations division utilizes the event to practice incident command and triage. We utilize triage tags and a transportation officer to provide a running total on patient treatment and EMS runs for the event.
As with any outdoor event, the weather is an issue, especially in late October. We’ve had Halloween Block Parties with temperatures in the low 70s and wall-to-wall crowds, and the next year we have 31-degree temperatures and snow flurries at 1:00 am, several hours before the event winds down. Our triage area does contain a warming station if needed, and EMS crews have treated and transported injured, unconscious, intoxicated, hypothermic patients from the event in previous years.
As we move into the 46th year of Athens Halloween, local leaders are trying to slowly add more family-oriented events early in the day as well as shutting the event down before midnight, a huge change from several years ago when the 2:30 am bar closing time signaled the unofficial end to the weekend’s festivities. In an abundance of caution, EMS and other public safety forces will remain on hand after the event closes in case an “after-party” occurs at the campus bars or in off-campus residential housing.
The city and university have worked in unison to “change the trajectory” of Block Party from a wild, drunken street party to a safer event by promoting responsible behavior while still having fun. The number of EMS calls and arrests by law enforcement have declined in the past five years. In 2018, EMS crews responded to 23 requests for service during the event. By comparison, we handled 68 calls during the same time period in 2012. The 2019 event will employ a professional promoter who is marketing the event with live bands, multiple stages, a beer garden, and the family-friendly offerings earlier in the day. From an EMS perspective, we welcome and support the change but will continue to staff the event “with an abundance of caution” for what COULD go wrong.
If it happens, we are ready.