AFTERBURN REPORT 2004
We are proud of our work at the Gate in 2004. We came into this job with open eyes and the knowledge that we had a huge amount of work to do. After years of decline in morale, service, and efficiency, we faced a make-or-break year. Happily, we made it.
It wasn't easy, but thankfully we were blessed with some very strong and hardworking individuals undaunted by the thought of working long shifts in harsh conditions. Our department succeeds through its personnel, and we were fortunate to have veteran staff members with heaps of experience help us accomplish a lot of what we set out to do. Although we hit some snags along the way and several obstacles still remain to be overcome in preparation for next year, we succeeded in establishing a solid foundation for the department upon which it will only continue to blossom.
In response to tightening gaps in procedure aimed at preventing stowaways passing through the Gate, non-paying participants continued to seek new loopholes. In 2004, many tried to sneak past the Perimeter, but strong enforcement and cooperation with law enforcement officers left few, if any holes. Great shift leads organized and ran things smoothly through the whole event.
After experiencing problems in the past, the Gate/Perimeter has started the climb toward better service. Morale has improved significantly, with lots of laughter and fun. By tweaking systems and designs, we smoothed out the process of entering Black Rock City.
We aim to make the Gate a place of efficient activity in an aesthetically wonderful environment. Returning volunteers will help to make the first experience for participants an exciting and joyous one.
Changes for 2004
Simple changes in the Gate process really helped a lot. We moved the Gate itself 400 yards toward the city, which helped to prevent any overflow of waiting traffic onto the highway. In a worst-case scenario, 1100 cars could wait bumper to bumper in our lanes and parking lot before reaching the highway. By extending the lanes and increasing the number of cars per lane, we not only maximized use of our space off highway, we also maximized the use and effectiveness of our staff. The addition of signs before the Gate also lightened the staff work-load. Opening the staff lane early helped staff vehicles that did not need to be checked to bypass the Gate without delay. Clearly marked lanes for different kinds of vehicles (RVs versus Cars) increased efficiency as well.
Another good change that benefited the Gate was entrusting staff with the authority to make decisions. In most cases, all staff members exhibited skilled and capable work when faced with difficult characters and questionable situations, thus eliminating the time that would otherwise be spent tracking down someone with authority to decide, and thereby minimizing time spent in line by people waiting for the result. Another tool that maintained the Gate flow more efficiently was giving participants the option to purchase a ticket and get a refund later if conditions warranted.
In 2004, the Gate/Perimeter camp occupied a perfect location. We had easy access to the inbound and outbound roads as well as ample space for our cars and camps. There was no interference with any other departments or camps as there had been in previous years. Placement of the Gate/Perimeter camp near the Department of Mutant Vehicles effectively centralized all the camps with heavy car traffic in one spot. Prior to opening day we had port-a-potties actually in our camp. Although incredibly convenient, we soon found it to be a convenient but malodorous arrangement. Fortunately our issue was remedied almost immediately.
2004 saw the noted absence of key players who either did not join us on the playa or worked greatly reduced schedules in comparison to the schedules worked in previous years. In their absence, a few people surprised us by stepping up to take up the slack. At one point, the cars were starting to back up and we started to think about a Gate all-com request for extra help. As if on cue, at that moment up rolled a pirate ship full of staff members who eagerly jumped out, ran to the lanes, and helped clear the jam. Together we were able to process something close to 500 cars in under 30 minutes.
Another noteworthy change was the opening date for the Gate. The Gate was up and running much earlier than in previous years, and we found that pushing up the date helped us avoid the need to do a sweep throughout the city to check tickets, which made a lot of people (both the Gate crew and other staff) mighty happy. Key management personnel were on site early, monitoring everyone, so we could tell who belonged and who did not.
Implementation and use of the early arrival system was successful. Although not perfect, it certainly gave us the tools needed to provide a proper welcome. There were fewer early arrivals in 2004 than in previous years, and those who did arrive prior to opening day were generally on the list of those who had permission. We dealt with a few noteworthy exceptions, and we will be examining our process to deal with such exceptions to make improvements. Some nefarious characters were prevented from entering when they should not. In addition to helping us determine whom to allow or turn away, the early arrival system helps serve as proof positive to law enforcement officers that the people on site before the event starts have a valid reason to be there.
The early arrival system has changed the pre-event time on the playa from a free-for-all to an organized and manageable environment. Before opening the event to early theme camps, the placement crew came and briefed those who were waiting, so everyone had a clear understanding of what to expect. That seemed like a very efficient and courteous manner to deal with the crowd.
Although the early arrival system was truly successful overall, there were some minor technical issues encountered in the system that could be improved. In particular, some difficulty resulted from the dependence on one unified electronic list of people approved for early arrival. Simple spelling errors keyed by untrained hands left a few individuals stranded at the Gate for long periods of time. If a name search did not return an identical result, the entire alphabetical list was displayed so the Gate staff could scan for it. Only terribly misspelled names would be lost in the alphabetical list, a small speed bump that we will easily hurdle next year.
Those held up due to early arrival confusion did experience some frustration, as the Gate staff was instructed not to use the radio to contact managers for approval. Instead, the Gate relied primarily on a paging system, which required waiting for a radio call back to confirm receipt of the page. After receiving the initial page, if someone needed to be granted permission for early arrival access or to get a ticket approved, those permissions had to be entered into the online system before access could be granted. This problem was exacerbated by the lack of web access at First Camp, although we were told that they would have access when the event started.
Having both the authority and resources available and on-hand made the impound lot something of a success. No one was ever happy to have their pocket bikes and ATVs put into long-term parking, but the policy made for a safer and quieter event.
One of the Gate's biggest achievements for 2004 was stopping counterfeiters. With a tip from one of our participants (our biggest assets!!!!) we caught the counterfeiters quickly. Nearly $10,000 worth of tickets was recovered and we were able to prevent additional infractions by notifying potential victims of scalpers and putting signs up all the way to Wadsworth. With the help of our experienced staff, we hindered one bunch of abuses and caught several other fake tickets as well.
The addition of new kiosks gave the gate a cleaner look than in years past. Our staff was provided with shade, protection from wind and rain, and a place to sit if needed. We opened and encouraged frequent communications amongst the staff members with use of our email lists to announce changes and needs; we got feedback, and we responded. We also increased communication with participants by placing a blurb in the Jackrabbit Speaks newsletter outlining Gate procedure, which seemed to smooth our process by getting participants to follow directions. We will expand use of these tools next year!
Our greatest success, one of our greatest goals from the beginning, and the achievement of which we are most proud was the improvement in morale. Following years of decline in staff enthusiasm and camaraderie, we were able to bring the heart back to the department. We saw to it that our staff members were treated right and received the encouragement and rewards they deserved. In return, our team worked hard, played hard, and had a great time. It was through mutual encouragement and respect that we were able to celebrate a successful year.
The Perimeter experienced a greater increase in activity beyond the fence than in previous years. Ground sensors used in combination with an extra set of night-vision equipment proved very effective means for alerting us to potentially unlawful entry. With shorter shifts and lots of veteran staff members, we saw fewer instances of burnout and instead plenty more grinning faces. Shift leaders relaxed the strain on management and helped by reducing questions to Gate-staff and others.
Lots of training ahead of time enabled the Project staff to effectively and efficiently communicate with law enforcement officers and representatives from the Bureau of Land Management and made it a very positive event for the whole staff. With the alternative entrances to the playa blocked off, excess traffic flow was diminished, allowing us to make far more efficient use of our time and energy than in previous years. It takes special people to work Perimeter, and we have lots of them. All of our core staff members really rocked.
Daily Population Census
The census taken at noon each day is presented at the respective day's 4:15pm Law Enforcement and Cooperator's Meeting. The population number is then used to calculate that day's fee to the BLM.
The daily population census went smoothly. Every count went out on time as scheduled, with the exception of a few 4 a.m. reports that were intentionally skipped so that we might get a good night's sleep. This result was far better than expected, as two of our core census staff members were last-minute cancellations. We relied on old staff and a few first-year people who joined in with enthusiasm and joy.
Goals for 2005
Improvements at the Gate will help the Gate evolve into something more than just an outpost of the event. With changes in procedures and design, we would like to become the gateway to something special rather than just another checkpoint.
Next year we hope to offer more extensive training for all of our shift leads so they are always sure whom they should call when questions arise. With more readily accessible information, operations can run smoother. Knowledge of all changes in policy and solutions ahead of time will also simplify Gate processes. Training will make our strongest team members more independent, ultimately freeing more time for everyone to do their jobs and accomplish their goals. We would also like to offer more on-playa training for new volunteers and for staff members in other departments (e.g. Box Office, Greeters, Black Rock Rangers) to give everyone a general understanding of our methods. These sessions would also help us disseminate last-minute changes in policy or procedure.
Physical changes to the layout of the Gate can also help to speed up the process of entering the city. We want to widen lanes where needed to accommodate all sorts of vehicles. In addition, a larger parking lot, another lane, more signage, and a larger staff lane are just a few minor changes to consider going forward that would be truly beneficial.
We hope that the recent increase in morale will increase our volunteer corps. As our department continues to grow we anticipate a need to rely more and more heavily on our volunteers in the future. In 2004 there were positions open to be filled, but a long reputation for unkind treatment seems to have dampened the enthusiasm of potential volunteers and discouraged their participation. We hope that our actions this year have started to counteract that reputation. No doubt, with a little more fun and added enthusiasm we should have the momentum to start the pendulum swinging the other direction.
We do have a weakness in our midnight to 6 a.m. shift. The most negative attention was focused there, and the problem seems to be endemic for certain staff. That issue has been at the forefront of our thoughts and will be remedied.
Our scheduling will change a bit next year. We were surprised by the traffic flow in 2004. We handled a huge influx on Sunday night through early Monday and then a small but steady stream for the rest of the week. We plan to adjust our scheduling accordingly. In addition, we feel that it would be a good idea to keep a few more staff members around post-event (until Tuesday after the Man burns) so we can discourage participants from depositing food at the Gate.
Information about changes in policy needs to reach a wider audience and needs to be distributed earlier in the year. We plan on using the JRS newsletter and various announce lists to inform as many people as possible about how they can help us to expediate their entry process. The same methods will improve communications within our department. We are aiming for transparency from top to bottom, so neither changes nor the reasons behind them remain mysterious.
In the past we have seen only very limited overlap between the Gate and Perimeter departments, and we hope to change that in the future. By encouraging Gate staff to work Perimeter shifts and vice versa, we hope to foster empathy that will result in a more unified crew overall.
Wristbands for early staff arrivals helped us to monitor who should be on site and who should not. Our goal next year is to find a more attractive wristband, something worn as more a badge of honor than a hindrance. During planning for 2005, we will investigate and come back with suggestions.
Early arrivals are a continuing struggle for the Gate crew. To track early arrivals, we rely on one unified electronic list, maintained and available on our network via a connection to the Internet. Although an exceptional way to stay centrally organized, the electronic list was not without its bugs. Occasionally, names were somehow dropped out of the list. In other instances names missing from the list simply had not been entered in a timely fashion. In either case, the problem must be remedied - it is a crucial step in our efforts to establish an effective system. Aside from the programming bugs that appeared, other weaknesses also became apparent as the system was used. In our first trials, the system provided no way to note that someone had already arrived. Equally frustrating, there was no terminal for accessing the system available at the Gate, itself. The process of getting approval for early arrivals required walking over to the box office to ask whether or not they were on the list, then walking back to the car to report the results - at four minutes per car. Every car in line behind had to wait four minutes multiplied by the number of cars ahead of them! Some seemed to not appreciate the delay.
Now that we have identified most of the flaws in the new system, we can improve it. We would recommend getting several handheld terminals for the Gate staff so every team member has the complete early arrivals list in-hand and can check people off the list as they arrive. In an ideal world, they would also be equipped with ticket scanners to check the authenticity of tickets, preventing any counterfeits from sneaking by the Gate! If we change systems rather than improve access to the current one, Gate staff only needs proof that a participant has permission for early arrival. Possibly, the Project could issue special, easily identifiable early arrival tickets or passes of some kind. An easily updated database would be best. We could quickly send a page to all relevant staff with the person's name and information, someone with authority could enter such information into the computerized system, and in no time the person would be past the Gate.
We hope for another set of night-vision equipment for our Gate Tower, which would both reduce the load on Perimeter by creating a stationary observation post and make more effective use of personnel. This post could also watch for ticket hand-offs. In five minutes at the Gate Tower, Pearl spotted two people doing just that and was able to prevent lost income to the Project.
The Perimeter plans to increase its patrol around the airport at night. In 2004, perimeter patrolled this area more heavily than other parts of the fence line, but that focus absorbed time and energy, consequently weakening other areas. Next year we may create a permanent Gate/Perimeter position there.
We want to make the Gate a more pleasant place to work, not only encouraging pride in our team, but attracting new volunteers to join. Hopefully by having the Gate appear more festive, participants will be in a more festive mood, making the job much easier for all. The area will also look much cleaner, encouraging our staff to maintain it and affirming after the event that the Gate is not a garbage dump.
We are blessed with an amazing staff that consistently helps us achieve the goals we lay down. We have the methods in place, an understanding of our role, and the ambition to achieve these goals. With great pleasure, we look forward to rejoining our staff for another year. With changes in the appearance of the Gate, we hope that everyone will see our department as the great feature of Black Rock City that we envision in our minds.