The Federation Ball

You’d think that emergency response and science-fiction don’t intersect.  One is firmly grounded in the real world and the other … well, it’s make-believe.  The truth of the matter is that science-fiction is prone to disasters as much as anything else and having a good plan up front is fairly critical.

Every year O.M.E.G.A. provides communications and security to the Federation Ball, an event that would be best described as a cross between a conference and a riot.  The Federation Ball takes place at StarFest, an annual multi-media convention, known to attract upwards of ten thousand participants.  On the schedule it follows the costume contest and parody play and is the last thing scheduled for Saturday night.  The crowd attending the event is probably best described as a fraternity entering spring break.  Yes, the April timing of this convention is fairly deliberate.

Federation Ball 1

The party is just starting. Photo by M. Khaytsus.

If you’ve ever gone clubbing, you are well familiar with the loud music, the flowing alcohol and the overloaded dance floor under a flood of flashing lights.  Those things stay the same at the Federation Ball.  This is about the time listeners start scoffing at the tale.  “It’s a private party for a bunch of nerds.  They need one because they can’t get in to a real night club.”

One might think that.

The demographics for science-fictions fans have changed tremendously over the decades.  Two generations ago mainstream culture refused to embrace the world of make-believe, but a generation later things of fantasy became reality.  Computers, cell phones, automatic doors, laser scanners.  They all evolved from a nerdy dream.  The generation born into this technological evolution has embraced the genre and accepts the theoretical principles of science-fiction with as much ease as their grandparents accepted the sight of a car driving down the street.

The nerds of yesteryear – the awkward, unkempt, heavy lens wearing outcasts – are gone.  Replacing them is a contemporary crowd of young doctors, lawyers, engineers, teachers and business people.  They are hip, forward looking and adventuresome.  They are a cornerstone of the environmental movement, self improvement and physical fitness.  Science-fiction of this generation is no longer escapism.  It is a tomorrow that they are looking forward to, a tomorrow that they are actively building.

The attendance of the Federation Ball can easily be 10% of the entire convention’s attendance and is considered to be one of the top attended events over the course of the weekend.  This is the halfway mark of the show and the Federation Ball is the “hump day” party where revelers can let their hair down and party into the night.  And they come dressed in their favorite science-fiction attire.  Think of your favorite night club on Halloween night, but the loose ill fitting clothes are not the normal dress.  True fans spend months getting ready for StarFest.  They plan long and hard on what they will wear and many design their outfits from scratch.  You may pause in wonder as someone passes you in the corridor, wondering if you really saw a well known actor/actress or just someone who managed to make themselves look like a movie star.

Federation Ball 2

The Macarena is alive and well at the Federation Ball. Photo by M. Khaytsus.

Costumes tend to have extremes.  Some overdress.  It’s not uncommon to see a fairly agile robot shuffle past you or a seven foot tall werewolf with a spring in his step.  You have to stop and give them a second glance, wondering how they did it.  The other extreme can be rather risqué, coming out only after hours when the kids and the mundanes have gone to bed.  Some outfits consist of less than a square foot of fabric and barely cover enough to keep the police at bay.  As they pass you, you theorize that they can’t bend over or sit down, but somehow they still manage to rip up the dance floor without destroying their outfits.  Maybe it’s just body paint.  You never really want to be caught staring.

O.M.E.G.A. works public safety for many events.  Every year we take part in up to two dozen rides, races, marathons and other public gatherings.  We watch for trouble, provide assistance, keep the event organizers appraised on what is going on, get help quickly when it is needed.  A science-fiction night club is really no different.  People still get into trouble, they still get lost, they still need to get directions.  Except here they may be drunk, too.

In most of our deployments our staff will be spread out across miles of terrain.  We will be stationed alone or in pairs and may not see another staff member over the course of the event.  Radios solve that challenge very easily, but coming into the Federation Ball, the communications challenge takes on a different role.  The hotel atrium where the event is held is maybe a hundred feet across by two hundred feet long, really, a postage stamp on the scale of a city block, but filled with hundreds of gyrating people and flashing lights and pumping music…  You can’t even walk to a member of your team twenty feet away.

A 100+ decibel sound wave creates amazing communications challenges.  If you’re lucky enough not to create a feedback loop when you open your microphone, you still have to be loud and clear enough to transmit your message.  In spite of the proximity of all the staff, this is probably our toughest communications challenge of the entire year.

And we’re of course dealing with a crowd, members of which have been liberally lubricated with alcohol (and potentially other mind altering substances).  The rules are simple.  No glass on the dance floor.  No break dancing, no mass bumping, no surfing.  Safety first.  And, of course, no weapons.  You’d scoff at this.  Nerds with weapons?  Okay, doctors, lawyers, engineers, teachers and business people with weapons?  You’d better believe it.  And much more so here than at a real night club.  A Klingon bat’leth, Conan’s sword, Gandalf’s staff, Freddy’s claws.  The weapons might be fake as revelers simulate their return from hunting Aliens or the Predator and we’re pretty sure that the Ghostbusters aren’t wearing real Proton Packs, but we can’t really be sure.  The sign at the entry reads, “No Weapons Allowed” and under it, in red print, “this means yours”.  We are constantly telling people to take weapons back to their room or their car.  Some chose to leave the weapons at our table out front.  A lot of blades.  One was a real firearm.

This Federation Ball was the 20th anniversary of the event at the convention and as with all the ones that preceded it, as the room emptied at the end of the night, there was a collective sigh of relief that we successfully got through another large scale disaster.  The tally?  Not too bad.  One case of heat exhaustion and a handful of people who slipped on a spilled drink on the floor.

And the best part of the event?  A legitimate excuse to sleep in past noon on Sunday.

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