“Christmas is cancelled this year,“ jokes Richard Limb. Symonds’ director of leisure safety will be far too busy to pull crackers or carve turkey. He has a party to supervise. The party. He and his team will be working as health and safety advisers for central London’s main millennium celebration – a massive event stretching four miles down the River Thames from Vauxhall Bridge to Tower Bridge, encompassing a funfair on the Mall, a global village, four live music stages, street theatre and the mother of all pyrotechnic displays.
At the last estimate, 4 million people were expected to turn up (roughly half the population of London) for events that will last all day and most of the night.
“I’m having my Christmas party on the 18th,” says Limb. “I can’t fit it in any later.” Doesn’t his family mind? “They’re used to it.
I usually work bank holidays – that’s when all the big events happen.”
Limb and his team will have Christmas Day off, but from Boxing Day until 4 January they will be policing the streets where the events will take place, ensuring that everything is set up (and eventually dismantled) according to the safety plan.
Work started back in February, long before details of the festivities were fully formulated. Since then, it has been a long and complex process of liaising with anyone and everyone who has even a passing interest in the event – the Metropolitan Police, the Royal Parks Police, river authorities, several local councils, London Transport, event organisers, companies based in the area, hotels, restaurants – and trying to build up a picture of what conditions might be like on the night. How many people will there be? When will they turn up and by what means? How much will they drink? Which offices will be staffed that night? Might there be any other traffic on the Thames? What might the weather be like? Will fall-out from the fireworks be a problem? Could anyone fall or jump into the Thames? Will the people dealing with the millennium bug be able to get in and out of their offices? Limb and his team are drawing up CAD projections but it takes some logistician to sort that lot out.
Limb has walked every inch of the site, acquainting himself with the position of every lamppost and litter bin, and will continue to do so right up to the event. “Sometimes there’s a breakdown in communication and the situation changes.
I did Hallowe’en in Belfast this year and three hours before the event, the council dug a huge hole in the road. Luckily, I was around and could get them to fill it in again.”
In addition to the footwork, there have been daily meetings for the past month.
“The whole event is incredibly political, being the main London event. I’ve even had the government on board. All our work has had to be signed off by the minister for London. There have been lots of meetings.”
This is easily the largest job Limb has done, and, as he says, “the largest anyone’s done”. He started out 25 years ago as a humble environmental health officer but found his calling when required to deal with the licensing for the world’s largest heavy metal concert at Castle Donington. Subsequent authorship of the key guidance document for health, safety and welfare at pop concerts got him headhunted by Symonds in 1993 – although not before negotiating an 18-month break in 1994-1995 to fulfil his ambition of cycling around the world with his wife. For a safety expert, he has an unhealthy obsession with dangerous sports. When he is not cycling across deserts, he goes to the other extreme; ice-climbing.
As head of Symonds’ seven-strong specialist leisure safety department, Limb has worked on most of the country’s major street events, including the Notting Hill Carnival and Edinburgh’s Hogmanay. “You don’t really enjoy the entertainments as such,” he says. “You can’t watch the performers, but the pleasure comes from watching people enjoying themselves. It’s got its perks though. The other week at an event in Leeds I had my photo taken with Scary Spice.”
So, is he excited about London’s event of the millennium? “It will be the best pyrotechnics anyone’s ever seen, without a doubt. One million pounds worth of fireworks being set off from 16 barges – that’s some display. Unfortunately, I’ll probably only see bits of it, if anything. I’ll probably have to stay inside at event control.
“I’ll start chilling out and have my first glass of wine when everyone’s had a good time and gone home safely.”