HARRISONBURG — As thousands of people circulate throughout the Rockingham County Fairgrounds this week, dozens of deputies, firefighters and EMTs are working to keep them safe.
Sheriff Bryan Hutcheson said a police presence is important, especially on the heels of several mass shootings in the country.
“We want the fair to be a safe place for people to have fun,” he said.
On most nights, there will be at least 15-20 deputies roaming the fairgrounds. On some nights, depending on the grandstands event, there could be double that.
Some deputies are in plainclothes, some on mountain bikes and some on four-wheelers.
“We try to spread out and have people out all across the grandstands, midway, food areas and parking lots,” Hutcheson said.
As deputies are out mingling with the fairgoers, he said, they are also looking for anything that’s unusual, including suspicious people.
He said the dozens of volunteers that make the fair possible are often his eyes and ears and are critical to the fair’s safety.
“They are observant,” he said. “A lot of them are here every night and know when something is strange or is different.”
Often, he said, they will pass that information to deputies.
Rarely do deputies have to deal with violence at the fair. The last major incident occurred in 2011, when fight started following a demolition derby. The altercation led to one man stabbing another.
Hutcheson said he always has more deputies for the derby and other competitive events. He said the participants are typically highly competitive and sometimes emotions boil over.
“People can get emotional, which can lead to an argument and it can become violent,” he said.
While Hutcheson is tasked with preventing and responding to crime, Rockingham County Fire and Rescue Chief Jeremy Holloway is in charge of monitoring weather and staffing the grounds with firefighters and medics.
His team monitors the weather all day and informs fair officials of concerns, so they can determine whether concerts and additional events can take place.
“The weather can do its own thing sometimes,” he said. “It’s difficult to predict.”
For example, he said, a storm rolled through the area early Tuesday night. The more powerful part of the storm centered over downtown Harrisonburg, knocking out power to the area. However, the fairgrounds was spared.
His staff also monitors the temperatures. If it’s a hot day, he plans for more people needing to cool off in the medical room.
“We bring them in and let them sit in the air condition to cool off a bit,” he said.
Holloway also makes sure fire and rescue personnel are available.
During the day, he said, usually two medics are at the fair, but at night, the number grows to up to 10. There is also one ambulance on scene 24 hours a day and up to three at night. There’s also at least one fire truck.
“We’d rather have people on standby and ready, but hope to never have to use them,” he said.