It’s much more than just ‘the drugs tent’ says Corinne Lane
My first experience of working in a welfare service was with Penny Mellor at Reading Festival. When the charity Penny worked for, Festival Welfare Services, lost its funding at short notice in 1995 I pulled a team together at the last minute drawing on local contacts from counselling and support agencies in the Reading area.
It was a very steep learning curve. I discovered it is one thing to volunteer with a welfare crew; quite another to take on board the co-ordination of one. We had anything and everything thrown at us that year: supporting members of the so-called New Age travelling community, lost dogs, breaking the news of a bereavement to a festival goer, supporting IV drug users, as well as dealing with the usual round of lost children and lost people, the confused and weary, and those that needed a safe place to chill and relax.
Things have certainly progressed since then. Festivals across the country are taking the health, safety and welfare of their staff and customers far more seriously and legislation has been put in place to support that.
The National Event Welfare Service (N.E.W.S.) has a broad remit for the emotional and practical support of people attending festivals. It is far more than just ‘the drugs tent’. Yes, we do promote harm minimisation through risk awareness of substance use, and yes, we do look after those that are suffering distress because of using drugs and/or alcohol. But we are also tasked with managing the festival’s duty of care to under 18s and vulnerable people. We support people with disabilities – or those with long term health conditions, mental and/or physical. We care for and reunite missing children with their guardians – this can be particularly challenging and distressing work, and there can be safeguarding issues to negotiate.
We are there with tissues in the middle of the night for the teenage girl who has split up with her boyfriend, and the friends worried about a member of their group that is missing. We offer support to people whom might be victims of crime or who have been assaulted. We offer monitored rest and non-medical care for people recovering from seizures or heat stroke, for example. We are a point of entry for people plucking up courage to speak out about self-harm, childhood abuse, or their sexual identity. We can then help them find the support they need in their own locality, in their own way.
We mend tents and wellies. We are the solid, dependable festival friends for people who have come to the event on their own or who have fallen out with their camping buddies. Here, a cuppa and a chat is worth its weight in gold. All levels of customer support improve their experience of the event.
“Our First Aid does what you do…”
When I get told by some event promoters, “It’s OK, we don’t need welfare, our first aid does what you do”, I am genuinely concerned. While there are some excellent festival medical services out there, with whom we work as colleagues, medical and welfare are different. I would not expect my staff to be treating fractures and burns, any more than I think a medical environment is suitable for soothing the tears of a frightened child.
Of course there is some crossover and referral, but a busy medical environment, that must by its nature keep things moving, is not going to provide the quiet, calming and above all patient recovery space that some people need. Without welfare, where do people with complex needs go? They are not ill per se. They do not need to take up the valuable time of a doctor or nurse, who must triage their attention according to the patient’s need.
The simple truth is that no-one can predict what will happen at an event, or where emotional or practical support will be needed. However, with over 20 years’ experience, N.E.W.S. will risk assess and attempt to cover all the bases. Yes, it may be the inexperienced festival-goer who finds themselves in a predicament more often, but not always; and don’t expect that to be only younger people – we cater for all ages. People in distress can get irate very quickly and situations can soon escalate resulting in a big headache for the promoter. Without the ‘advocacy bridge’ of welfare, then stewards, security, medics, even local police can get dragged into something relatively minor. This is not a good experience for the festival customer. Neither is it good for the reputation of the event. Police and event licensing officers will reflect on such incidents when considering whether the event should continue next year.
We see up to 5% of the total festival crowd at any event, from small one day dance gigs to large five day events with camping. Those numbers add up. With a welfare team on site, we can act as an ‘early warning’ system for problems in infrastructure, or perhaps within certain areas of the crowd or camping. In the event of a crisis or major incident, your welfare service will be on the front line offering emotional and practical support and assistance, while police and ambulance services deal with those needing more critical intervention and not be ‘clogged up’ with people who – while acknowledging their genuine distress – could be better dealt with by a welfare team.
We are here to listen and to feed back, and in doing so event promoters can be certain that a safety net is in place.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Corinne Lane is the senior co-ordinator of National Event Welfare Service (N.E.W.S.), which is a not-for-profit organisation staffed by volunteers drawn from diverse professional and social care backgrounds. N.E.W.S. has been providing welfare support to events large and small across the UK since 1995.
Corinne is a qualified and highly experienced psychotherapist and trauma counsellor, although now retired from private practice and focussing solely on her event work. She has over 30 years’ experience in the event industry. www.eventwelfare.co.uk