The war on alcohol abuse is getting extra reinforcement this year from what might seem like an unlikely pair of allies: Orange County's two outdoor amphitheaters, where rock 'n' roll, warm summer nights and lots of ice-cold beer traditionally go hand-in-hand.
But in response to growing public awareness and concern over alcohol consumption, Irvine Meadows and Pacific Amphitheatre officials are taking new aim at problems associated with sales of beer and wine during the next six months of rock and pop concerts.
"I don't know that the problem is any worse than it's ever been," said Matt Curto, director of operations at Irvine Meadows. "As long as I've been in this business, since 1967, there's been drinking going on at concerts. But there is more public awareness.
"With groups like SADD (Students Against Drunk Drivers) and MADD (Mothers Against Drunk Drivers), the public is aware that drinking and driving is getting out of hand, and I think people are saying, 'We're not going to take it,' " Curto said.
Therefore, Irvine Meadows and Pacific amphitheatres are stepping up procedures to keep minors from purchasing alcohol or adults from buying alcohol for minors, to prevent any patrons from drinking to excess and to turn away patrons who arrive at concerts intoxicated.
Although drinking by teen-agers has been increasingly in the news, "the problem is not only with minors," said Pacific Amphitheatre general manager Steve Redfearn. "Thirty-year-olds get drunk, too. Our records (indicate) we sell far less beer at a Simple Minds show than at an Alabama concert."
Efforts to curtail alcohol abuse aren't new at the amphitheaters, but this year officials are using more and bigger signs outlining regulations on alcohol purchases, making stricter checks on age identification before selling alcoholic beverages and closing alcohol concessions earlier.
Both facilities have local police departments patrolling parking lots before, during and after concerts to cut down on tail-gate parties, in which fans start drinking perhaps hours before shows begin and continue long after they end.
"Tail-gate parties will no longer be allowed," said Bill Parsons, one of the owners of Event Management, the Los Alamitos-based firm that handles security at both facilities. "If people are drunk before they enter, they won't be allowed inside. We're trying to head off all problems, not just at the point of sale."
New signs have been posted at the Pacific's main gates, warning patrons against drinking in the parking lot, and additional security guards have been hired to patrol lines of incoming patrons to spot alcoholic beverages that they may bring with them.
Anyone possessing alcohol will be asked to pour it out, said Costa Mesa City Manager Allan Roeder, who said city officials have considered the alcohol issue "a problem in the past . . . but not our main concern."
Roeder said that even with a more aggressive stance against drinking, arrests will be made only in extreme circumstances. "If we arrested every borderline case, we'd fill up our jail," Roeder said. "That's not our intent. We take the view that concertgoers should come and enjoy the show, but they should think twice before they get back on the road."
In cases where someone gets drunk despite preventive measures, officials at both theaters said patrons will be taken to waiting areas until they are sober, or ejected if they become unruly.
Curto has arranged with a local cab company to have cabs waiting outside Irvine Meadows exits after concerts for anyone unfit to drive. "From our first four concerts, the cab drivers have been happy about the amount of business they've been doing," he said.
Irvine police are working with security personnel and employees of concession booths at Irvine Meadows, Curto said, providing more extensive training on how to spot fake identification cards, how to recognize signs that someone has had too much to drink and diplomatic ways of refusing to serve intoxicated persons.
"This is not something we just do once at the beginning of the year," Curto said. "Before every single show, they are told what to do."
Irvine police are trying to handle alcohol problems by any means short of arrests. "When we make an arrest that means booking the person into Orange County Jail," said Sgt. Bob Kredel, special events coordinator for Irvine Police Department.
Because of the overcrowding problem at the County Jail, "the facility does not accept drunk-in-public charges any more. . . . So we're a little concerned about how we're going to handle some of these future shows. Our only other option is to book them into (UCI Medical Center's) mental health ward. But the drunk-on-alcohol cases we can usually deal with. It's the people on hallucinogenic or psychedelic drugs who we aren't in a position to handle. But those don't happen too often."