A small fleet of drones began to buzz overhead Thursday monitoring traffic and perimeters for the Coachella Valley Music and Arts Festival.
With 125,000 people expected daily and an increased camping area and footprint, the festival dwarfs its host city, Indio. In the wake of the killing of 58 at a Las Vegas music festival, Indio police and 14 other local and federal agencies will have more eyes than ever on the crowd thanks to the aerial surveillance.
“Drones will be flying over watching the perimeters. It takes us a few minutes to get an officer to a perimeter breach but a drone takes 45 seconds,” Indio Police Sgt. Dan Marshall said. “The drones will also allow us to monitor traffic better than before.”
Marshall said an outside company experienced in flying drones is providing the eyes in the sky for the first time and is cheaper and easier to call in than a police chopper.
In the desert hamlet, the horror of the Las Vegas attack still remains as it came on the hills of concert attacks by terrorists in Manchester, England, and Paris.
“Public safety is the absolute No. 1 priority every year regardless of national and international events,” Marshall said. “We have 15 years of making improvements. We make changes every year.”
The festival’s growth in capacity last year meant the number of officers patrolling the two-day event actually increased considerably last year. “We get officers from all across the Coachella Valley and Banning and Beaumont.”
Marshall said Indio has just over 90,000 people on a normal day and festival attendance over two days is 250,000. He said with the increased size of the Sahara tent venue and an enlarged camping area, officers will have more real estate to keep a watchful eye over.
The increased camp means officers will be deployed more on a 24/7 basis, he said.
Marshall said Goldenvoice, the festival promoter, is footing the security costs including the addition of drones. But drones won’t be flying over the crowd.
Long before the deadly Vegas shooting in October, when a gunman fired from a hotel down into the crowd, Coachella’s local and national security forces had held training drills for emergencies including natural disasters and a mass shooter.
Part of the reason for increasing the festival footprint was to take away some of the congestion in and around some of the tents and allow for more easy crowd movement.
Escape routes at the Route 91 Harvest Music festival in Las Vegas were a significant issue, as the gunman on the 32nd floor of the Mandalay Bay Resort fired on the crowd below, where there were few gates for fans to flee through.
Coachella may not rank on the Department of Homeland Security’s list of top soft targets, but Indio police say they are working with the Riverside County Sheriff’s Department, Homeland Security, the FBI and state law enforcement.
Security experts say it is not all about metal detectors and visible presence at Coachella and that undercover officers and electronic eyes on the crowds under the control of experienced observers can spot and prevent not only trouble brewing but a potentially more serious attack like those in Paris.
Marshall said police, fire and medical responders are all under an umbrella command with their incident commanders in the same post ready to react in unison. Over the years, he said, he has seen pretty much everything, even a hard landing by an aircraft on a nearby field. “We haven’t had a birth yet as far I know,” he added.
There is an extensive list of festival rules, but Marshall said police have a list of four top don’ts: Don’t bring drugs, don’t bring drones, don’t bring weapons and don’t bring animals.
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