How Do Cities Prepare When a Large Event Simply Pops Up?

A sign warns about trespassing at an entrance to the Nevada Test and Training Range near Area 51 outside of Rachel, Nevada. Officials in Nevada's rural Lincoln County have drafted an emergency declaration and are planning with state officials to handle possible crowds that might arrive for an event next month dubbed "Storm Area 51."
Image: AP Photo/John Locher, File

It started as a social media joke, but the Storm Area 51 — an event so large local governments and public safety agencies normally request 6 months to plan — is pressing Lincoln County Fire Protection District to be ready in 5-6 weeks.

It’s not often that a fire district must prepare for a known event with so many unknown factors. But that’s the situation facing the Lincoln County (Nevada) Fire Protection District and its fire chief/emergency manager, Eric Holt, now anticipating a massive influx of people to the remote area on Sept. 20, all due to a joke Facebook post.

The Facebook event, called “Storm Area 51, They Can’t Stop All of Us,” proposed storming Nevada’s famed Area 51, a classified U.S. Air Force facility located within the Nevada Test and Training Range, so people could learn the truth about what happens beyond the gates. The post noted, “We can move faster than their bullets. Let’s see them aliens.”

The event ultimately generated 2 million accepted invitations, and while that number is certainly highly inflated, Chief Holt and his team have more than enough reason to believe that tens of thousands of people are about to descend upon Lincoln County. And even if they aren’t there to “storm Area 51,” the event creator is now promoting the weekend as something called Alienstock Festival. So people are coming – but how many and why?

How did this happen?

Chief Holt: Initially we took it as kind of a joke. We saw it on Facebook and took it lightly, as it was intended. However, over the last several weeks, we started to see intel that people were actually going to be coming to this thing. Hotels started to book up. There was an influx of people visiting the Alien Research Center, which is in Hiko in our county, and the Little A’Le’Inn, which is out in Rachel. Their foot traffic increased from 40-50 people on a weekend day (Friday, Saturday, Sunday) to upwards of 800-1,000 people a day. That’s a 1,700% increase in foot traffic.

Then you look at the media side of things; it’s gone mainstream for multiple days consecutively. The amount of attention that it’s getting and the foot traffic we’re seeing, along with the hotels being booked up, the calls that those businesses are receiving, and our offices are receiving from as far as Australia, New York – all this shows that it has turned into a real thing, and we are actively planning for it.

How Many People Are Expected to Show Up?

Chief Holt: We are expecting a large influx of people. And to kind of paint a picture for you of the scale — considering our level– 2 million people on the Facebook page said they were going, and 1% of 2 million is 20,000 people. So even if we see 1% – 20,000 people – that’s four times our county’s population of about 5,200 people.

We’re planning for 30,000 to 40,000 people, with a contingency of 50,000 to 100,000 coming to a county. It’s overwhelming, to be honest. We’re not set up to handle that type of influx of people in one weekend. So it’s gotten real over the last 3½ weeks. We’ve been extremely busy planning, preparing and identifying concerns and needs of several different agencies.

How has the Lincoln County Fire Protection District been preparing for this event over the past few weeks?

Chief Holt: We’ve had regular meetings with our local Sheriff’s office and regular communication with the Department of Emergency Management, as well as our other local agencies. But a lot of our time has been spent gathering intel and identifying our concerns, figuring out what our needs are, then trying to put that into an Incident Action Plan.

We are in the process of almost completing our preliminary Incident Action Plan (IAP), and it will have the different incident functions, such as a law enforcement branch, an EMS branch, a fire branch, an air operations branch and a search and rescue branch. We’re identifying needs for each of those branches, and then detailing that down to actual tactics and operational tactics that will be implemented, along with any needs or concerns. It’s very extensive.

As far as the fire side goes, the fire and EMS are kind of tied together, so we have been putting together our EMS plans, which are quite extensive, and then our fire support plans. The role of the fire district will be to provide assistance with any local fires that we may have out there, both structure fires or wildland fires, also any vehicle accidents, and basic support for the incident. Something to note, too, is that with our fire district and EMS, we are a 99% volunteer service, so we have myself, and one other paid full-time fire fighter. Other than that, we are 100% volunteer. There are roughly 110 volunteers spread across four small towns. So staffing for several days is definitely a concern.

How do you approach a festival-like event that could present multiple threats?

Chief Holt: That’s the tough part. That’s on the forefront of our planning – safety and concern, all those things we’ve had to consider and have contingency plans for – weather-related issues, crowd control, people trying to cross onto the base, violence. Those are some of the concerns we have.

We have contingency plan after contingency plan after contingency plan, and we just try to do the best that we can, planning for the worst and hope for the best. Really, that’s what it has come down to. That’s become our model: Plan for the worst and hope for the best. We are doing everything that we can to make sure that we have our ducks in a row.

We have several MCI trailers that are going to be deployed, and mass-care facilities. We are looking at shelters and mobile kitchens to be able to feed our responders. There is the concern of an active shooter or of an improvised explosive device (IED). Those types of concerns, you don’t really want to talk about those, but you can’t NOT consider all options.

We have plans and are working on plans to encompass all those types of things. We have been including our hospitals in our planning, too, plus our EMS, our fire, search and rescue, and several law enforcement agencies. It’s extensive.

How did the county commissioners pre-sign an emergency declaration?

Chief Holt: I approached the board of commissioners to pre-sign the emergency declaration and proposed that the authority be given to the chairman of the board to make the official declaration at any point in this process so that we didn’t have to wait another two weeks for another commissioner’s meeting. This gives us the flexibility to declare at any point that we feel we have exceeded our capacity. I felt that that was appropriate.

Basically, the emergency declaration states that at the point that we declare the emergency, we have depleted all our resources and funding, and we need assistance from the State. We’ve had several planning meetings with the State’s Department of Emergency Management. They are actively assisting us in our plans, and they are aware of the pre-declaration.

Read more from Chief Holt about Storm Area 51 preparations in the full article on FireRescue1.com.

Learn more about preparation for Storm Area 51 in a Q&A with the Lincoln County Sheriff on PoliceOne.com.

Learn more about large event planning in our previous coverage:

Festival Security: Developing Risk Management Plans for Public Events

Festival Security After Las Vegas: Special Event Standby Service Advice

Tip: Using Municipal Vehicles to Increase Security at Public Events

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