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Making safety invisible

At Maker Faire, the safety officer's job is done best when no one notices he's there.

Maker Faire safety officer Joseph Pred talking to Star Wheel creator Paul daPlumber about any safety issues that might come up with the bicycle-technology-powered carnival ride.
Daniel Terdiman/CNET Networks

AUSTIN, TEXAS--Joseph Pred is carefully eyeing the giant rolling ferris-wheel-like carnival ride as it begins to head down the first hill it has encountered since being built three years ago.

Known as the Star Wheel, the bicycle-technology-powered ride is glorious fun. But since it carries three pedaling people in its interior, Pred is very interested in making sure that the Star Wheel's creators are in control of it as it starts to head down the hill.

Pred is the safety officer for Maker Faire, the weekend-long celebration of do-it-yourself culture that's wrapping up here today. He's in charge of making sure that the million moving parts that make up such an event don't result in things going wrong and people getting hurt, or that at least if someone does get injured, it's not because of negligence on the part of the organizers or the exhibitors.

And right now, his focus is entirely on the Star Wheel and its initial encounter with degrees of incline.

"They're testing it because they've never done it on a grade," says Pred as he watches the wheel's progress. "They're testing the tolerances. My job is to observe and help them figure it out and give them a nudge. And they're doing a good job."

I've come here to Austin to report not just on Maker Faire--as I've done before--but also to write about what goes on behind the scenes. So talking to someone like Pred, who is invisible but crucial to the countless artists and attendees at an event like this, seemed natural.

This role is no stretch for Pred: He's played the same role at both of the previous Maker Faires, in San Mateo, Calif., in May 2006 and May 2007. And though he's based in the San Francisco Bay Area, the show's organizers have hired him to come to the Texas capital with them because he offers an irreplaceable combination of technical skill, long-term relationships with many of the people who are exhibiting, and an understanding of how to interface with government agencies like the sheriff and the fire department.

But as much as you might think that the safety officer's job would be filled with tales of gory incidents and exciting adventures, Pred says the reverse is actually the reality.

"My job is basically to make things not happen," Pred, who runs the Bay Area company, Mutual Aid Response Services (MARS), says. "A lot of the work is involved with pre-planning, being proactive, reviewing safety plans, and making sure that the artists and the (exhibitors) just have common sense....But the makers are, by and large, responsible for the safety of their projects, and to be fair, the makers are generally experts at what they're doing already, so it's not a big stretch."

One reason he knows this is that he has worked with or known many of the artists for years, either through previous Maker Faires, or through Burning Man--for which he works part-time by running emergency services--and other events. And that experience with many of the people involved in putting on Maker Faire here breeds the kind of familiarity necessary to break down the communications barriers that might otherwise arise when trying to instruct artists on safety issues.

"It's about relationships...(being able to) walk up to someone and address them by their first name," said Pred, who, incidentally, has been a friend of mine for some time.

Besides his knowledge of the people and of the art projects here, Pred explains that having someone whose job is specifically to seek out safety concerns is crucial to the success of an event like Maker Faire.

"I'm that safety net for both the makers and the organizers," he says. They're "focused on production and their projects, and they can get tunnel vision, and so having somebody (like me), this is a standard position in a lot of organizations, having someone focused on safety, so preventative measures can be taken before something happens."

Part of the job of the safety officer is to work alongside agencies like the fire department in setting up expectations of safety on the part of the artists. Once that position is established and respected, and the community has those expectations, they can become self-enforcing, and the job of Pred, or someone else like him, becomes supportive.

Still, there are real practical considerations.

"We review all the general descriptions of the makers (and their projects), and we highlight those that involve known hazards," Pred explains. "It could be something as simple as a glue gun or soldering iron. Maybe there's a small but known threat to someone who doesn't know how to safely handle one....It starts a dialog, really. And that dialog is just intended to show that we understand their project, and they understand our expectations. The goal is to enable them to do their projects to share their delight and passion for what they do."

One of the things that Pred feels he offers organizers of events like Maker Faire, and the participating artists, is a different approach than what many are used to. That's important when you're talking about artists who are used to working within their own constraints and guidelines and for whom any rigid law-enforcement rules would be anathema to doing their art.

"I think a traditional approach to safety has been very much a 'no, you can't do that' sort of approach. It's very conservative and not in any way permissive. But with a community like this, it's more like, 'yes, you can do that, and let's figure out how to do that safely.'" said Pred. "The primary difference is that authorities generally are more concerned about a code of regulations...that doesn't account for community or the values that a community is looking to share."

As a result, one of Pred's core contributions to everyone involved in putting on Maker Faire is what he terms as "translation."

"I'm the liaison to all the agencies we might deal with, to free the production staff to deal with the production, and I can speak to the agencies' mindset," Pred says. "And surprisingly, that's a very difficult translation for the different parties to make with each other. Agencies tend not to understand the communities, and the communities don't always understand the authorities, because it's different languages."