Bag searches a new wrinkle to National Fair security

bpurser@macon.comSeptember 29, 2013 

  • If you go

    • Expect bag searches at gates; pack light
    • Remember your parking spot using gate and light pole number
    • Don’t leave purses, cell-phones, etc., unattended
    • Be prepared for lots of walking
    • Keep hydrated
    • Bring any required medications
    • Need help? Go to the clock tower

    Source: Stephen Shimp, public safety director,

PERRY — When the 2013 Georgia National Fair opens Thursday, Stephen Shimp and his security force will be ready. For Shimp, public safety director for the Georgia National Fairgrounds and Agricenter, the start of the fair is like a city springing to life within one square mile.

About 500,000 people are expected to visit the 24th annual fair during its 10-day run. That means a lot to deal with.

“We have everything that you’d expect in a small city here at the fairgrounds, from law enforcement to fire departments, EMS (emergency medical) services as well as many other agencies that assist us,” the 42-year-old Shimp said.

To coordinate public safety for such a large-scale event requires a lot of team work. Shimp, who’s been with the agricenter for 11 years, is the sole public safety employee. The fair contracts the services of local, state and some federal agencies, and the security force tops 100 people. The price tag for the 2013 fair is about $400,000.

While Shimp coordinates efforts, each agency has its own special role. Here’s how it works:

Perry police oversee all general law enforcement activities within the fair and patrol the grounds. Houston County sheriff’s deputies manage the gates and handle special events. The Georgia State Patrol manages traffic and parking.

Houston County fire coordinates fire and first responder services with Houston Healthcare emergency medical service. The Georgia Emergency Management Agency provides a green mobile command unit that is set up at the fairground’s clock tower. A team of Houston County sheriff’s 911 operators relocates to the fair from the 911 center in Warner Robins and dispatch on site.

EMS also erects a tent at the clock tower that resembles a small hospital. Specially equipped golf carts are staffed and ready to take injured or medically impaired fair attendees from the fairgrounds to ambulances outside the gates.

“T-shirt security” — so called for the marked shirts that the law enforcement officers wear — stroll casually through the crowds. But most people don’t notice the label, and the officers blend in with other fairgoers, said Shimp, a Massachusetts transplant and former Bibb County sheriff’s deputy.

The Bibb County sheriff’s office sends gang intelligence and drug officers who also move through the crowds. Anyone displaying gang colors is asked to remove the scarf or other identifying item or is escorted from the fair.

The team includes police dogs. A dog trained to sniff out explosives, for example, is on site at all times.

“An important security team member is the public,” Shimp said. “They’re our extra sets of eyes and ears.”

No major incidents

To date, the fair has had no major episodes . There have been scares, such as a bull that got loose on the fairgrounds a few years ago. But no one was injured. Another year, a child had a seizure after collapsing near a power cord. People who witnessed the incident initially thought the child had been electrocuted.

Perry police Capt. Health Dykes, who’s been working the fair for 19 years, recalled a child who went missing for several hours on the last day of the fair. Authorities were frantic — having canvassed the grounds several times. The boy’s father had gone out to his car repeatedly to check for the boy. Vendors had started packing up.

But then an officer made one more check of the car and to everyone’s surprise, the 7-year-old boy was found curled up in the floorboard of the car under a blanket, where he’d been asleep for hours. The distraught father didn’t see him in the dark.

Occasionally, a vehicle has been stolen from fair parking. But that is very rare, Dykes noted.

Most of the crime involves shoplifting, fighting, drunken patrons and crimes of opportunity, such as the snatching of a purse left unattended. Dykes could recall only one time when someone tried to snatch a money bag from a vendor.

But random acts of kindness outweigh the unpleasant aspects of fair security.

Misplaced purses and wallets — with the money still intact — are often turned in to lost and found at the clock tower, along with keys and cellphones.

“We had a guy who lost $100 out of a wallet and someone actually turned it in,” Shimp said.

The majority of the public safety calls are health related. Fairgoers become dehydrated, forget medication and sometimes have gone into cardiac arrest.

Others have brought new life into world there — occasionally in the back of an ambulance before it departs the fairgrounds or reaches the hospital.

Bag searches

The high visibility of the uniformed officers is probably the greatest deterrent to criminal activity in the post 9/11 world, Shimp said.

All entrances and exits are monitored and security cameras are in key places — including some not obvious — throughout the fair. Other security measures are also in place, said Shimp, who declined to elaborate.

Sessions are held before and after the fair to brainstorm, troubleshoot and evaluate past performances.

A new measure this year is the likelihood of bag searches at entrances. Searched bags will be marked with colored tags, which will be changed out every day.

“We ask that all patrons be prepared when they come to the fair,” Shimp said. “We’re going to try to do a not-so-intrusive search of any bags. This is for the general public’s safety.”

With the massive amount of security provided, local agencies are stretched and have to adjust. A step taken by Dykes and fellow Capt. Bill Phelps, head of patrol, is to divide responsibilities during the 10-day period between station duty and fair duty.

When Dykes is at the police station during business hours, Phelps is at the fair. The rotation also includes the night shift at the fair. Both supervisors are on the fairgrounds during the weekends.

The fair means all hands on deck, Dykes said.

He remembers the fair in the early days when Perry police provided all security and parking — an impossible task for one agency today. Despite the long hours, “I look forward to it,” said Dykes, who heads his agency’s criminal investigation division. “A lot of people I don’t see but once a year — and I see them at the fair.

“It’s a change of pace,” he said. “It’s a chance to get out and breathe some fresh air.”

To contact writer Becky Purser, call 256-9559.

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