Area 51: A tale of two desert gatherings

Will you be prepared if tens of thousands ‘storm’ your community?


When Nevada county commissioners originally heard about the Storm Area 51 event sweeping social media, they first thought it a joke. When it became apparent that the Facebook event could draw more than four times Lincoln County’s population down on the desert area, hoping to overwhelm the Air Force base with sheer numbers – to uncover its rumored secrets of alien ships and beings – that’s when they realized they needed to plan for the worst, according to Fire Chief/Emergency Manager Eric Holt.

Lincoln and Nye Counties issued emergency orders, citing concerns about traffic jams, makeshift campsites, a lack of nearby medical services, and a finite supply of gas, water and food.

Jon Koenig, chairman of the Nye County Commission, predicted that cellular phone service would crash because towers aren't equipped for a heavy volume of calls.

Earlier this month, the organizers pulled the plug on “Alienstock.” The website directs aspiring attendees to instead, “come in peace” to an Area 51 celebration at the Downtown Las Vegas Events Center. (Photo/AP)
Earlier this month, the organizers pulled the plug on “Alienstock.” The website directs aspiring attendees to instead, “come in peace” to an Area 51 celebration at the Downtown Las Vegas Events Center. (Photo/AP)

"If you're coming, be prepared, because it's not going to be nice," he said.

Area 51 Celebration

Earlier this month, the organizers pulled the plug on “Alienstock.” A notice was posted on the event’s website, citing the “lack of infrastructure, planning, and risk management, along with concerns raised for the safety of the expected 10,000+ attendees,” noting the decision to transition away from the city of Rachel, to the “safe, clean secure” downtown Las Vegas.

The organizers cited the disastrous Fyre Fest – a music festival hyped by Fyre Media Inc. and rapper Ja Rule amongst social media influencers, scheduled for Spring 2017 on the Bahamian island of Great Exuma – in their decision. Fyre Fest was postponed indefinitely after attendees arrived to find planners did not provide enough food or accommodations, in addition to problems with security and performing artists. The event was profiled in two recent documentaries; “Fyre Fraud” (Hulu) and “Fyre: The Greatest Party That Never Happened” (Netflix).

“We are not interested in, nor will we tolerate any involvement in a FYREFEST 2.0,” read the announcement from Alienstock. “We foresee a possible humanitarian disaster in the works, and we can’t participate in any capacity at this point.”

The website directs aspiring attendees to instead, “come in peace” to an Area 51 celebration at the Downtown Las Vegas Events Center.

A lesson from Burning Man

The real lesson here, according to Bryan Bledsoe, DO, FACEP, FAAEM, EMT-P, is that emergency services need to be aware of grassroots events brewing in their communities, and have contingency plans in place for events that can bring thousands of people swooping down on an area that doesn’t have the infrastructure in place to support them. He advised community leaders to monitor social media for these types of viral sensations.

Bledsoe, an emergency physician, paramedic and EMS educator, is a professor of emergency medicine at the University of Nevada School of Medicine and an attending emergency physician at the University Medical Center in Las Vegas. He also has some experience with unique mass gatherings, as he served as the medical director at Burning Man while Humboldt General Hospital was contracted to provide medical services for the festival from 2011-2015.

Each August, Burning Man draws crowds of more than 70,000 people to Black Rock City, a temporary city erected in the desert about 100 miles northeast of Reno, with no existing infrastructure. Bledsoe noted the festival-goers, known as burners, are typically healthy individuals, though many are often under the influence of drugs and alcohol. Yet, due to the size of the crowd, during each week-long celebration as many as 2,000-3,000 patients are treated on-site for maladies ranging from infections to lacerations, heat stroke, broken bones and burns. During its contract, HGH set up a satellite field hospital, called Rampart, as a medical home base. With the nearest regional hospital a two-hour drive (or an expensive helicopter ride) away, most are treated on-site. Very few patients were transported for definitive care to Humboldt General’s main facility in Winnemucca, Nevada, or other facilities in Reno, Bledsoe said.

The difference lies in the organization. While Burning Man’s “culture of possibility” is derived through it’s 10 principles, which include communal effort, civic responsibility and leaving no trace, the event is backed by a board of directors, running the non-profit 501(c)3 organization, which is heavily organized, unlike the proposed Storm Area 51 viral event.

Atomic fireballs and tin-foil hats

Despite the change of venue, officials still anticipate some will make the trek to Rachel, either to test the boundaries or observe. Barring a large-scale act of violence, people will probably be just fine, Bledsoe surmised, but there won’t be any alien sightings. “Nobody is going to get on that test site,” he noted, explaining the area leading up to the compound is roughly the size of Rhode Island, “and the security is incredible.”

Bledsoe noted the government takes trespassing on the compound very seriously. Already this week, two Dutchmen, Ties Granzier, 21, and Govert Charles Wilhelmus Jacob Sweep, 20, were arrested for suspicion of trespassing after their car, holding camera equipment and a drone, was found inside a security perimeter. “It’s going to be a letdown,” Bledsoe said, predicting many who travel to the area in hopes of an alien encounter will likely end up drinking beer and playing the penny slots.

As for Bledsoe, he will be staffing the trauma center at UMC in Las Vegas, where their capacity to scale and to deal with large-crowd events is well-honed. His team is stocking up on tin foil hats, hot sauce and atomic fire balls to commemorate the event. Should anyone fall ill or be injured at the Air Force base or the Events Center that needs to be transported to UMC, “we’ll be ready,” he told EMS1.

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