Blaming a House Fire on Wood

Having a 2 week old around the house doesn’t leave a lot of time for blogging, but there’s a piece on OpenFile Toronto’s site that’s been driving me nuts for the last few days, it’s clear that I can’t clearly state my objections on Twitter, and so I’m taking advantage of nap time to compose a quick response.

Also, and I say this regularly, I rarely comment on my own business and specifically, I haven’t said too much about the Downsview collapse. This is in deference to the friends and colleagues who worked on the show and my other close friends who are safely and successfully pulling off shows just like the Radiohead gig day in and day out.

But the piece up on OpenFile Toronto (link) (and the Rolling Stone piece it references) is so full of bad conclusions I have to weigh in.

There are 3 main points I want to address from the article:

  1. Aluminum is an unsafe building material
  2. Steel stages are safer than aluminum ones
  3. The number of contractors involved in building a stage necessarily has an impact on safety.

The above image is featured on the OpenFile site at the top of the story in question and it shows part of the stage structure at Downsview after the collapse. The opening line in the piece, found directly below this image is, “It’s all your fault, aluminum.” The author (Jamie Bradburn) then goes on to quote an old Rod Stewart roadie who opines that aluminum is too flimsy to meet the weight requirements of modern rock shows, and that steel is a better material for this kind of work.

Here’s the problem: the structure in the above picture, at the Downsview site, is almost certainly made out of steel. Whether or not the central roof portion was made out of steel is to be determined, and no roadie (no matter how good) can tell the difference just by looking at it.

What we can tell is that the majority of the structure is comprised of all-round scaffolding, which is a steel product. (If you want to see a huge example of all-round steel scaffolding in action, go down to the Indy site. It’s used to build all the massive bleacher units.)

My first job in the Toronto entertainment industry was working for Optex, the contractor who it’s reported supplied the stage at Downsview, and I’ve lugged enough all-round to know the difference between aluminum and steel. That heavy stuff is steel. Anyway..

Without the guidance of a structural engineer, it would be irresponsible to suggest that any one form of structure might have better survived the windstorms in Ottawa, Indiana or Alberta than any other. And since we don’t know why the Downsview roof collapsed, it’s impossible to know if another material might have prevented tragedy.

Also unsaid by the author and the Rod Stewart roadie is that the Downsview stage, the Ottawa stage and the Indiana stage are all different types of stage. The Ottawa stage was a large truss-supported mobile stage, while the Indiana stage was a truss roof system. They sound similar, but are actually quite different. Certainly different enough in their design and construction to call into question any easy attempt to relate their failures.

So, while it’s true that both Ottawa and Indiana used aluminum, it’s not apparent in either case, nor to the best of my knowledge has it been reported, that an alternate material would have better withstood the wind. So, despite the thin reasoning of the author and the Rod Stewart roadie, there’s no EVIDENCE that any material would have prevented the weather-related collapses in Ottawa, Alberta, or Indiana. And since we can’t even seem to agree (prove) what material was used in the Downsview stage, arguments for or against the structure don’t carry much weight.

The second point about whether or not steel stages are safer than aluminum ones is a bit of a canard, since there is a large number of both in use today and both have suffered collapses. The Pukkelpop stage, for example, was a steel all-round scaffolding stage that was felled by weather. The OpenFile story goes on to site a statement by the Ottawa Bluesfest saying that they’ll be using a different structure this year. The statement seems to indicate that the stage will be steel all-round scaffolding, and I suppose we’re meant to believe that it will be much more resistant to environmental factors. But, don’t tell that to people at Pukkelpop.

The point is, whether steel is better than aluminum is better than steel, blaming a stage collapse on aluminum is like blaming a house fire on wood. Material does not misuse itself. Since we’re reasonably confident the Downsview stage was not felled by wind; whether it was improper loading, incompetent construction, old gear or bad luck, in the absence of acts of God, we can conclude that it was the use of material that caused the failure. Using a material that can better withstand improper loading doesn’t change the fact that it’s improperly loaded. Build a stage out of whatever you like, wrong remains wrong.

The problem is therefore not the material, but how it’s used. The Rod Stewart roadie almost comes to this conclusion, but instead of acknowledging that sometimes you have to work within material constraints, he instead suggests we change the material. Again, there’s no evidence that would make a difference, but it sounds like progress.

Unable to prove its points about material choice, OpenFile suggests that the number of firms involved in a project may also have created a safety hazard; which is absurd. A major construction project can have dozens or hundreds of contractors involved and as far as I know, there’s no upper limit at which the number of contractors is automatically considered a safety risk. Much like the material, it’s not what you use but how you use it.

How do huge building projects keep it together even when they have more than 2 sub-contractors working on one job site at one time? It’s the job of the General Contractor (GC) to organize, and the city building department and Ministry of Labour to oversee. The question we should be asking in the Downsview case is, who was the GC (hint: technical requirements start with the band’s British design team and are managed through the promoter) and where were municipal or provincial inspectors before the show?

I have worked in the entertainment business for 15 years now and have done fairly well for myself. I’m currently a designer and project manager for Cirque du Soleil (whose views I do NOT represent here) and have worked on more hot, sweaty outdoor shows than I care to remember. As I mentioned above, I’ve built stage exactly like the one at Downsview and in all my time, on all my shows I have never met with a building inspector. Ever. Electrical Inspectors from Ontario’s notoriously strict Electrical Safety Authority are a regular sight at big shows. But structural…never in my experience.

I agree with OpenFile’s conclusion that stronger standards are required. But we should not conclude that Ontario entertainment industry is unsafe.

When a young man, working on a large rock show, fell from a considerable height at Skydome back in the 90’s and was killed, the Ministry of Labour suddenly realized there was a huge industry operating without regulatory oversight, and they stepped to affect change. Now we all wear our hardhats, steel shoes and safety harnesses. The regulators woke up, the industry woke up and now Ontario’s entertainment business is among the safest, best educated in North America. (Something I suspect will be proven out when the story of Downsview is told in full.)

Yes, there are fly-by-nighters out there who rent gear cheap and pull off shows without much thought to standards. They are not the majority, they wouldn’t have been anywhere near the Downsview show, and there are whole lot less of them than there was 20 years ago. Why? Because of the Ministry of Labour’s efforts to regulate and monitor entertainment work, and the Electrical Safety Authority’s mission to rid Ontario of crappy lighting and electrical gear. If OpenFile or Rolling Stone are really concerned about the safety of temporary stages, maybe they should been looking at local and provincial government, who are completely absent on this issue. More regulatory oversight drives up the insurance rates, which in turn pushes up rental rates, and nothing’s more effective at getting shifty characters out of our industry.

It’s simply too easy to blame the inanimate material. Aluminum, it’s not your fault. You’re just a metal, after all.

7 thoughts on “Blaming a House Fire on Wood

  1. Hi Joshua,

    I’m OpenFile’s social media editor. Thanks for writing your post. I’m going to pass it on to our Toronto editor.


  2. It’s true that city inspectors keep an eye on worker safety and reviewing certain building code requirements at building sites including very large projects but don’t forget the architects and particularly the engineers that should be inspecting the contractor’s work. The city depends on them to take responsibility for design, inspecting finished work and approving any changes. I’d be interested to know how this works in the entertainment industry, that is who designs the structural systems involved in stage sets versus who ultimately takes responsibility for overseeing their construction and any on-site changes that are made.

    Of course, it is possible that it was a material failure, but that could be possible with any material. Certainly, as you say, it’s a little premature for pointing fingers in any direction.

    • You raise a very good point Kristin – and one we all hope will not be decided in a knee jerk fashion. You’d be floored by the lack of actual oversight in the theatre/film/tv/corporate AV industry in this area – it just doesn’t exist in a legislative way, only individual due diligence and experience covers most of what is done.
      Its kind of ironic but Rock and Roll probably has the most involvement of proper engineering just by the fact that they have to cover so many different jurisdictions while on tour.
      Hopefully the industry can get ahead of any decision – much in the same way that Josh alluded to with the SkyDome accident way back when – CITT was able to get involved immediately following (by request of the MOL) and directly lead to the system we have now. (thanks for mentioning that Josh – too many people have forgotten about that). Otherwise we might end up with handrails across the front of the stage – just like what happened when the Bluma opened and the city inspector didn’t like the unprotected edge. Nice polished brass handrail from proscenium to proscenium. I’m told it was very pretty.

  3. Thanks for your thoughtful perspective on the Downsview stage collapse. When I heard about the incident, all I could think of was all of the people I know who could have been at that site. While I was relieved to learn that they were safe, it was still heartbreaking to know that a man died on that show and others were injured. My background is stage management and I have been involved in H & S since a critical injury involving an actor in 1995. I am a member of the Ministry of Labour H & S Live Performance Advisory Committee, we are all keen to find way to prevent this from happening again. While we’ve seen huge H & S improvements in recent years, there is still work to be done. I agree that standards that are appropriate and specific to this work are needed. Would you consider getting in touch with me so that we could chat further?

  4. Josh, just a slight clarification about the Skydome accident. Chad’s fall was NOT from a considerably height – according to another friend who was working with him; it was only about 10-12 feet. Harness and lanyard was used on the horizontal, just not the vertical. He was climbing down when he slipped.

  5. Pingback: Weekly roundup: July 2-8 « lingwhatics

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