Alarm at Jacksonville country music concert prompts fear, questions

SMG says smoke from Florida Georgia Line's pyrotechnics activated alarm

By Jim Piggott - Reporter , Destiny McKeiver - Multi-media journalist , News4Jax.com Staff

JACKSONVILLE, Fla. - The day after a Florida Georgia Line concert was interrupted by a siren and recorded message indicating there had been an unspecified emergency, the public, still jittery after the mass shooting in Law Vegas, is asking if a potential emergency was handled appropriately.

About 9:45 p.m. Thursday, as thousands of fans of the country pop duo were enjoying the concert, an alarm sounded, following by the message, "Attention. An emergency has been reported."

The band briskly left the stage and the audience was left in the dark until the house lights came  up. With no word of what was going on, some people started to leave. There was no panic, and almost as many people stayed put as headed for the exits. Some people asked arena staff and police officers what was going on.

"I looked behind me and there was a family -- mom, dad and three daughters," Gene Harley said. "They were young teens and I could tell one of the teens was scared. She looked at her dad and said, 'Dad, I want to go. I don't want to get shot.'"

UNCUT: Performance interrupted by alarm, evacuation

Melissa Reed, who is pregnant, said there was no way she was going to stay behind.

"(With) everything that’s been going on in the world, he grabbed my hand and we took off to the car, just to be safe," Reed said.

About seven minutes after the siren interrupted the concert, there was another announcement, saying, "Everything is safe. Please stand by." A few minutes later, there was this: "Ladies and gentlemen, welcome back. Everybody, we are safe. It was just a fire a smoke detector that went off and we are going to resume the show here in a few minutes."

Just after 10 p.m. the band was back onstage and completed the concert.

SMG, the company that manages the Jacksonville Veterans Memorial Arena and other city entertainment venues, initially said a smoke detector on a catwalk was triggered and set off the alarm. On Friday afternoon, the company released a full statement and blamed smoke from pyrotechnics used at the concert for setting off the alarm.

In a statement issued Friday afternoon, SMG General Manager Bill McConnell said:

The safety of our guests is the number one priority at all times and we pledge that commitment as we continue to review the systems and protocols in the Arena. We are thankful for the collaboration of our public safety partners and personnel who did their best to work in unison to provide the appropriate response to an otherwise frightening experience for many. We appreciate the patience and understanding of all guests and thank our friends at Live Nation and the entire Florida-Georgia Line production for their response and for delivering Jacksonville another night of amazing entertainment."

Uncertainty creates fear

Harley attended the concert with his wife, Kelly, who had been afraid to attend because of what happened in Las Vegas.

"We sat there for 15 minutes not knowing what was going on, what's the problem or the emergency. That could mean anything. (After) what happened a week and a half ago, everybody is on their toes," Harley said.

Some concertgoers claim staff and security did not take appropriate action, leaving the audience members wondering what was happening and what they should do. Some who left the arena said they were too shaken up to go back inside.

"It was poorly handled. When we were walking out, the staff was even asking us what was going on," Reed said.

Some felt the people who evacuated and then were allowed to return created another security threat.

"Security, police -- no one was checking the people. Everyone just went back in, and that's a big safety issue right there," Carl Lee said.

Even though there turned out to be no danger and no one was hurt, the incident left people shaken.

"Last night, seeing the people run out, you can tell people are more on guard," Kelly Harley said. "Maybe they take things a little more seriously, for their own safety."

Crime and safety analyst Gil Smith, a former Jacksonville police officer who has worked security at concerts at the arena, said there are protocols in place for various emergencies, such as tornados, shootings and even terrorist threats.

"If it wasn’t an actual emergency, then there was no need to move the people and they won’t take over the PA system," Smith said. "However, even though there wasn’t an emergency, maybe some type of announcement should’ve been made to reassure people that there was no serious emergency. 'You don’t need to do anything; just stay in your seat and the concert will resume.'"

Concern spills onto social media

Many concertgoers posted their reaction online, saying their thoughts immediately turned to Las Vegas. Some were also upset and said communication should've been better.

One fan wrote, "Thing is, they had no plan it seemed. Florida Georgia Line was in the middle of a song, a recording came on and said there has been an emergency (didn't say what it was), the band run offstage without saying anything."

Another woman called News4Jax to say she was near the stage when this happened, and tried to use the nearest exit, but was told she couldn't.

News4Jax producer Dana Levy, who was at the concert, said it was very frightening and she decided not to go back in. 

"An alarm went off. It sounded like it was a sound effect at first, like, part of the show. The band rushed offstage. There was confusion for a few seconds," Levy said. "The lights went on. People were looking around and security guards came in through the rows, telling people to get out, an emergency was going on. Everyone was rushing down the stairs, rushing down the escalators and no one had any answers as to what was going on. Everyone got out of the building really fast."

The arena can fit 15,000 people. It's unclear if the concert was sold out. 

Friday's show goes on

Twenty-four hours after the alarm went off, there was another big concert Friday night at the Veterans Memorial Arena downtown.

It was the '90s Block Party, featuring some rhythm and blues artists, including Monica, Jagged Edge and Ginuwine. 

Security officials could be seen going through people's bags as they headed into the arena.

Concertgoers told News4Jax that Thursday night's evacuation scare didn't deter them, and they feel the venue is safe.

"We came to have a good time. You can't live in fear all the time. So, hopefully, that's what we're going to do," concertgoer Dani Blanchard said. "Hopefully, God will cover us and we're going to have a good time tonight."

Some people said they discussed emergency plans on the way to the concert -- just in case.

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