An inside look at the people who kept country fest fans safe
BY NAOMI KOWLES
For the Star Journal
While Toby Keith shook the stage Saturday night at Rhinelander’s annual Hodag Country Fest, deputies from the Oneida County Sheriff’s Office held their hands over their earpieces and watched the crowd just yards away.
Security measures used to protect the thousands of country music lovers have evolved over the years since the festival’s inception in 1978. The Oneida County Sheriff’s Office (OCSO) and other security entities play a key role in the safety of the record crowd who turned out over the weekend, a role that has grown with the festival and played a part in a similar reduction of criminal activity throughout the event.
Sgt. Dave Seefeldt reflected on the OCSO’s progression of involvement in the festivities. Seefeldt has served with the office for a number of years, a period of time in which there has always been an active deputy presence on the grounds, but he says that wasn’t always the case. In the early days of the festival, the OCSO would only respond to calls from the event as needed.
Capt. Tyler Young, a 23-year veteran of the office, has helped police the event nearly every year. When he first started, their command post began as an old ambulance and later a truck that was merely parked at the top of the hill, overseeing the crowd.
Now a temporary office is set up at a central location near the main stage and pavilion, and deputies patrol the grounds and performances around the clock. Two private security companies help maintain the rules of the campground and performance areas.
Another private company, Wisconsin K9 Services, was also present with two explosive detective K9s to perform regular sweeps of the grounds, high traffic areas, and egress points. The company is operated by retired law enforcement officers, and performs much of their work at Lambeau Field in Green Bay.
Young says that disturbances and criminal activity have seen a steady decline over the course of the event’s history, with the festival attracting a crowd that is remarkably easy to police.
The OSCO has taken an increasingly proactive approach to patrolling the festival, he explained. While only 15 were picked up last week for underage drinking, Young said that number has steadily decreased from the days when they would stop 100 just on a Saturday night.
The captain was personally responsible for one technique that has helped to reduce underage drinking issues, inspired by the Trunk Monkey commercials.
Deputy Mitch Ellis, who worked the festival for several years, described the method. “We’ll go there with like five deputies, drive around in a … plain van in the overflow with a pile of deputies inside. And we’ll go until we see an underage party,” he explained. “All of the sudden, deputies come flying out of the van. People are running everywhere.”
Some seasoned partygoers have caught on to the trick, Young said, but they still use the unmarked van to patrol for illegal drinkers. Property damage complaints have also decreased drastically, he indicated, a trend that appears to follow increases in proactive enforcement over the years.
Deputy Timothy Johnson said the overflow camping area, to the west and across the road from the main stage and grounds, is where the deputies handle the “majority of craziness.” Campers closer to the pavilion have attended the festival for years and don’t want to lose their reserved spot, he explained, which can result in better behavior.
Johnson’s thumb needed x-rays after stepping in to stop a fight on Friday night, one of a few instances of disorderly conduct last week. For the most part, however, members of law enforcement and security who spoke to the Star Journal over the weekend while patrolling the festival agree that people police themselves. Walking through the crowds, the deputies are frequently stopped with friendly screams of “You must be hot!” and “Do you want a beer?” Countless attendees thank them for their service as they mingle with the partiers to chat and patrol.
“90% love us,” Johnson said, a statistic echoed by the founder of Tri-bolt, a security company new to the Hodag fest, when citing the percentage of crowd who “just want to have a good time.”
Tri-Bolt is used for the performance area, with this being the first year they were in full-time attendance after a part-time presence in 2017. Mike Tantillo, its founder and vice president, called the festival crowd “the best in the country.” Statistics seem to give credence to the statement, as Young said that despite the size of the crowd, the number of calls for service remains very low in comparison to similar festivals.
The company differs from Per Mar Security Services, a long time security provider for the festival, in that it is a veteran-owned and operated firm.
“We bring a lot of veteran and law enforcement values and training,” Tantillo explained. “We try to have everything modeled after military units and military training to give the sort of discipline that makes people feel more safe.”
The company had 50 employees monitoring the crowds in the main stage area on Saturday evening, Tantillo said. While their main task is the clearing of “overzealous” people in the main aisle and front stage area, the OSCO deputies take up key positions around the area during a performance, something that Tantillo said set them apart from other events he has worked where law enforcement is difficult to locate when needed.
Tri-Bolt’s website indicates that their staff is “comprised of veterans of the military and law enforcement who have proven themselves in the field.” At the Hodag, several younger faces also wore Tri-Bolt shirts, which Tantillo indicated were members of the company’s intern program.
In contrast, Per Mar’s online job applications do not require applicants to have similar experience. Several OSCO deputies remarked that in the past, the company’s employees have created issues for law enforcement. Two Facebook reviews from attendees of Hodag Country Fest in 2015 and 2016 also made complaints about quantity and quality of hired security members.
“Things have improved in the last couple years,” Young said, pointing to a thick stack of papers in the office he indicated were background checks on every Per Mar employee who worked the festival.
Communication has been part of the growing process, Young remarked. Last year was the first year that an event safety meeting was held each morning on stage between the various representations of law enforcement, hired security, festival management, and emergency medical services.
“As reflects with the relationship and issues with Per Mar, there’s that daily briefing now,” he explained, where they could address various issues and handle situations as they arise.
With Per Mar handling the camping for the festival, Young says the results are more consistent and quiet hours are better enforced. “We have less problems because of the work they’re putting forth,” he said.
Regarding specific security measures used at the concert, festival coordinator Dixie Nieuwenhuis declined to comment in detail but said they had met with security companies and police, and they had helped implement measures to keep everybody safe.
While law enforcement and security officials constitute a visible part of the event, both Nieuwenhuis and Sheriff Grady Hartman made it clear that though the public may not notice, there are changes each year to address growing safety concerns of the fest.