How they keep the fair safe

For many patrons, the Orange County Fair conjures images of bright lights, snorting livestock and, of course, bizarre foods.

What may be less present is the public and private security behind the scenes and the months of planning and orchestration that go into creating a safe atmosphere for fairgoers.

It's a perennial ritual built around planning.

In February, Orange County Sheriff's Department representatives meet with fair organizers and, while looking at the performers and attractions, figure out the number of deputies necessary, balancing the fine line between cost and protection, according to Sgt. Mark Alsobrook.

They're gearing up for times when, seemingly overnight, the population of a mid-size city, some 45,000 to 80,000 people, enters the gates at 88 Fair Drive, flooding the 150-acre fairgrounds.

Then there's the fair's staff, which swells from 100 year-round to 1,300 seasonal, including 200 safety personnel brought on to help with the 24-hour monitoring at the park from a week before the fair begins until a week after it closes.

Like many bustling communities, a small police station is centrally located on the fairgrounds, near an access point to the main street, where an ambulance or jail-bound sheriff's van can easily come and go.

Tucked away behind The Hangar concert venue is a command post equipped with all the tools a typical law enforcement agency needs to make an arrest, process evidence and conduct interviews.

A computer-aided dispatch system can run license plates, and send deputies to an area, while a separate trailer provides deputies the tools necessary to write up reports. There is also special paperwork for state reports since the fairgrounds belong to a state agricultural district, not the county or city.

As the day progresses, security staffing ebbs and flows with the tide of people that pours through the park's color-coded gates.

Deputies on bikes and in squad cars patrol the parking lot, while others are assigned to the venues for special shows. The diamond-shaped Pacific Amphitheatre is broken up into positions like on a baseball field, with the stage serving as home plate.

The concert lineup can affect staffing levels. Certain performers can change the dynamic of the crowd and may require more security, Alsobrook said.

A 1960s cover band likely won't rile concertgoers like a punk act, for example.

Costa Mesa police patrol the traffic immediately outside the fairgrounds while the deputies roam the freely. There's one rule: Keep moving.

The Sheriff's Department is just one component of an overall safety plan at the fair. Deputies work hand in glove with the fair's Guest Relations department. For every 20 or so deputies on duty, another 45 to 65 members of the fair's security staff are on duty, according to Guest Relations Supervisor Nick Buffa.

Usually when a problem arises, security from Guest Services is the first on scene, often diffusing an argument or otherwise handling a situation, Buffa said.

"We will maintain or contain a situation until the cavalry arrives, and they are the cavalry," Buffa said of situations that require sworn law enforcement.

The three key organizations for fair safety — the Sheriff's Department, Guest Relations and Costa Mesa Police Department — work in tandem, sharing radios and cameras that can zero in on a problem area, and assess a situation before sending personnel.

Park safety extends beyond the fairgrounds security groups. Game attendants, ride operators and other staff know CPR and first aid, and receive training. They also undergo drug testing and are screened for sex offenses using Megan's Law, according to fair spokeswoman Robin Wachner.

The majority of offenses relate to counterfeit money, theft and alcohol, including minors drinking and fairgoers older than 21 drinking too much, according to Alsobrook.

Sheriff's Department officials said there have been 71 misdemeanor arrests and one felony arrest this year so far. A parent was arrested for felony child endangerment for being heavily intoxicated.

There were 45 arrests in 2011, three of them for felonies.

The Alcohol Compliance Team in Guest Relations is tasked with ensuring that those with a drink in their hand have a wristband on their arm confirming they are of age.

While the majority of offenses are alcohol-related, deputies and fair personnel take measures against more serious offenders.

At a recent Friday briefing, supervisors asked deputies to follow their instincts and watch for potential child predators and other possibly serious offenders.

Because a gunman had opened fire in a crowded movie theater in Aurora, Colo. earlier that day, supervisors were said to be on a heightened state of alertness since the fair is a "soft target."

"The goal of our deployment here is a safe environment for families to come enjoy the fair," Alsobrook said. "We're not trying to arrest as many people as we can. We want a safe environment."

Twitter: @lawilliams30

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