PACE: the hidden safety net at South by Southwest

City of Austin PACE Team members confer while on patrol during SXSW 2017 (KXAN Photo)
City of Austin PACE Team members confer while on patrol during SXSW 2017 (KXAN Photo)

AUSTIN (KXAN) – An unassuming but dedicated hybrid team of public servants is making sure crowds of South By Southwest revelers are able to revel in relative safety. The city of Austin’s PACE teams — short for Public Assembly Code Enforcement — patrol downtown venues and those spots farther afield looking for issues related to alcohol, noise and security.

“We’re not here to dampen their party. We’re here to make sure they’re safe,” said Code Officer Willis Adams as he walked along Colorado Street Friday dipping in and out of crowded bars. He used a portable database showing which venues had permits and which had been previously cited and why.

A few moments earlier, the fire department captain walking with Adams noticed delivery vehicles blocking an emergency escape route in an alley behind a crowded pub. It took only minutes for accompanying police officers to help round up the drivers so the trucks could be moved.

“If there was an emergency in there and the [patrons] all tried to dump out this way, they’d jam up here by the [vehicles],” said Fire Capt. Christopher Shewmaker.

City of Austin PACE Team members immersed in a SXSW crowd (KXAN Photo)

This year Austin’s four PACE teams are busy. For example, Thursday night at the festival, PACE officers ran into 21 situations, ranging from an overcrowded venue in the 100 block of W. 5th St. to tripping hazards and people selling goods in city rights-of-way. Seventeen violations were resolved on the spot as the SXSW party continued around them.

Along with its downtown patrols, PACE gets its tips from people calling the city’s 311 line. Last week PACE warned a homeowner out in Apache Shores about being over capacity and operating a festival venue without a license.

The PACE concept evolved around 2012 when Austin’s spring festival season showed no signs of slowing down or weakening. The city’s four PACE teams include representatives from city police, fire and code departments who also work with state alcohol licensing agents.

Code Officer Adams said the key is to blend into the crowds and be willing to work with business owners and venue managers in a respectful way – even if some people choose to break the law.

“With so many people in the downtown area, the crowds that are here, some people are going to take advantage of that and say ‘We’re going sell beer, [city code officers] are not going to be watching this spot,'” said Adams.

To minimize surprises and possible citations, the city asks venue operators to go over a PACE checklist well before SXSW crowds arrive.

As well each year, the city has venue planners obtain the required permits.

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