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Balloon Fiesta ramps up safety

Thousands of people gather every morning during Balloon Fiesta to watch the mass ascension, when hundreds of balloons float into the sky. (Jim Thompson/Albuquerque Journal)

Copyright © 2019 Albuquerque Journal

Organizers of the Albuquerque International Balloon Fiesta are gearing up for another year of big balloons, big crowds and big safety risks.

This year, all guests entering Balloon Fiesta Park through a public gate will have to open their bags for a thorough check and, for the first time, walk through a metal detector.

“This is clearly in recognition of the unfortunate events and tragic events that continue to take place in the country,” said Harry Season, who is a Balloon Fiesta board member and is in charge of overseeing public safety for the nine-day event.

Mass shootings at public places or during public events are still fresh in people’s minds, especially after the carnage at an El Paso Walmart where 22 people were killed and a country music concert in Las Vegas, Nevada, where 58 died.

Balloon Fiesta officials have been coordinating with state and local law enforcement on public safety matters since 1991, and federal agencies joined the now more than 20 organizations in 2001. That list includes the Albuquerque Police Department, State Police, the FBI, Homeland Security – even some branches of the military. They work together year-round to make Balloon Fiesta “the safest place in New Mexico,” Season said.

He was president of the fiesta board of directors during the Sept. 11 attacks in 2001, and he said that since then, Balloon Fiesta staff have added to existing safety plans, following new measures used at other big events such as the New Mexico State Fair, which debuted brand new metal detectors this year.

Balloon Fiesta staff scheduled a news conference Sunday afternoon to formally announce changes in the park’s security regimen.

Field staff – including the “zebras” who dress in dramatic black and white stripes and direct balloon and foot traffic during takeoff, taxi and landing – were also being trained on how to deal with emergency situations, including an active shooter.

“We want to make it as safe as we possibly can,” Season said. “Frankly, I don’t want (guests) to have to think about anything else except, ‘Let’s go to Balloon Fiesta Park, and let’s have a good time.’ ”

Park staff receive a threat analysis from the federal government each year. As of Sept. 20, Season said, there were no threats directed at the balloons or their admirers.

“It’s been drilled into us that if you see something, say something,” he said. Attendees can report anything they think is suspicious to public safety officers, who will be wearing blue polo shirts or yellow safety vests, or any of the zebras.

Allen Tetreault, the fiesta’s director of public safety, said walk-through metal detectors and hand-held wands have been on the team’s radar for a few years, and this year staff built the costs into the budget.

“With all the incidents that have happened throughout the United States, we thought this was the best time to implement this,” he said.

There will be between six and eight sets of walk-through detectors and wands at eight to 10 gates. Public safety aides will staff each detector and patrol the park.

“We will have a huge complement of law enforcement officers all over the place,” Tetreault said. “They will be intermingled in the crowd, looking from certain vantage points, they’ll be watching and they’ll be looking for people exhibiting suspicious behavior.”

Uniformed and plainclothes officers from APD, Albuquerque Fire Rescue, the Bernalillo County Sheriff’s Office, State Police and the FBI will be on the field every day.

“Those people, of course, will be armed,” Tetreault said. “We want to make sure we keep the rest of the weapons off the field, away from the general public.”

Fiesta attendees are encouraged to bring their personal items in small, clear plastic bags, or none at all.

Tetreault said safety staff are implementing new bag-search techniques that he could not reveal, but said they are more prepared than ever.

Because people will have to allow their bags to be searched, empty their pockets, and wait to go through metals detectors, he said fiesta fanatics should plan to arrive at the park a little earlier than previous years.

Blades under 4 inches, including pocketknives, are allowed into the park. Firearms, blades longer than 4 inches, spiked jewelry or wallet chains, alcohol, drugs, and nonservice animals are not allowed onto the field.

People with small children are encouraged to locate the State Police tent and command center where they can enter in the “tag your tots” program.

Fiesta board members spend every night on the field. Season has been attending the fiesta as a pilot, balloonmeister, board member, and attendee since 1980.

“It is probably the safest place in New Mexico,” he said.

•All public gates will have metal detectors visitors must pass through.

•Items not allowed: firearms, blades longer than 4 inches, spiked jewelry or wallet chains, alcohol, drugs, and nonservice animals.

• Carry belongings in a see-through, plastic bag, if possible.