Tag Archives: Iroquois Theatre

It’s Fire Prevention Week

This week (October 6-October 12, 2013) is Fire Prevention Week. It is a good time to remind ourselves to check that we are following all the proper fire prevention procedures, whether we work in theatre, an independent shop, or at home.

Using a Fire Extinguisher
Using a Fire Extinguisher

Fires happen. We should not pretend that they are a thing of the past, or that our laws and technology protect us. Every year, Patrick Hudson of OffstageJobs.com reminds us how many fires (that we hear of) happen in the entertainment industry; in 2012, there were at least 14. His posts do a good job of reminding us what the proper procedures are. And in case you think they can’t happen to you, he reminds us that the Iroquois Theatre thought the same (go read those articles now; I’ll wait). Despite its boast of being “fireproof” in a city with one of the strictest fire codes in the world, it caught fire in 1903 and killed 602 people. This was not the result of some grand failure, but rather a whole lot of little things that could have been avoided: exit doors were unmarked or blocked, lighting fixtures were in the path of the fire curtain, the scenery was not adequately flame-proofed, etc. Most of these were violations of existing fire code, rather than the lack of knowledge of how to prevent fires.

So while props people are typically not in charge of maintaining many of these things, as a member of the production team, we can still monitor them. If management or producers are pushing for unsafe practices (like covering the exit signs, or disabling the fire curtain), we can stand with the rest of the technicians so they do not need to fight the battle alone. We can keep our props out of stairwells and maintain clear egress paths through our storage areas. If we have prop fire extinguishers, keep them labelled well and far away from real fire extinguishers. Leave flammables in the flammables cabinet. If you are not aware of all the regulations and procedures to follow, Fire Prevention Week is a good time to brush up.

And if you work in your rental home or apartment (and even if you don’t), get renter’s insurance. My wife and I lived through a fire that destroyed our whole apartment building. It’s traumatizing enough without having to worry about all your stuff and where you’re going to live. You may not think you have enough stuff to make it worthwhile, but the value of all your little odds and ends adds up quick. Renter’s insurance is much more than just replacing your stuff; ours also sent movers to salvage and clean what they could while housing us in a temporary apartment. I only had to miss one day of work, which was important because I was freelancing at the time, and paid hourly. Anyone in the building without insurance had to scramble to find a place to sleep that same day, as well as take time off work to haul all their belongings out before they were damaged further or looted.

So take this week to double-check that you are doing all you can to prevent fires and are prepared to deal with one should it occur, both at work and at home. You’ll be glad you did.

Public Theater Fire Drill

On March 25, 1911, 146 workers perished in the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire, one of the deadliest industrial accidents in US history. One hundred years later to the day, and only three blocks over, me and my fellow coworkers at the Public Theater found ourselves evacuating our building during a fire alarm.

Employees of the Public Theater during a fire drill on March 25, 2011. Photograph by Jay Duckworth
Employees of the Public Theater during a fire drill on March 25, 2011. Photograph by Jay Duckworth

I’m not sure whether this was a fire drill, an alarm tripped because of construction or an actual fire situation. Whatever the reason, it stood as a good reminder of the necessity for fire drills as part of any theatre’s fire safety plan. The next time the alarm’ go off, everyone who was part of this evacuation will remember what to do and respond more quickly. As long as these drills happen regularly, enough people will know what to do and be able to guide any new employees and visiting artists to safety.

The Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire was such a horrible accident due to gross negligence and mistreatment of the workers on the part of the owners. I try not to inject politics into this blog, but the following statement is more fact than opinion: unions have had a large part in improving workplace safety for all workers, both union and non, so that such incidents are less likely to happen today. Nancy Goldstein does a good job of summarizing the lessons learned from the Triangle Factory fire.

This is not an article about unions though; it is about fire safety. Fire drills such as the one we experienced are just one part of a complete fire safety plan in a theatre.

Some directors and producers seem downright offended when they feel they must compromise their production to facilitate fire regulations. “Why can’t we cover these exit signs?” “Why can’t we place this scenery in front of these doors?” “Why can’t these doors remain propped open?”

Yes, it may seem silly to have to follow all these often inconvenient regulations even though the building is not currently on fire. That’s the point; you can’t suddenly uncover the exit signs, clear the paths and tell your employees where to go once a fire starts. It’s like skydiving; for the majority of the trip, you’ll be fine without a parachute. But if you don’t wear one on the way out the plane, that last little bit at the end is going to hurt a lot.

The reporters at Backstage Jobs have already done a fine job of covering theatre fire safety in the past few months. Last December was the anniversary of one of the worst theatre fires in American history; the Iroquois Theatre fire in Chicago claimed 602 lives. In “Lest we forget…“, Patrick Hudson writes:

Some exit doors were covered by drapes; some opened inward; some were “decorative” and not actually exits; some opened onto incomplete fire escapes (patrons fell or jumped to their deaths on the brick paved alley below, piling up to the point where their bodies created enough of a cushion to allow others to survive the fall) some were simply locked…

[W]hen stagehands and performers opened the stage door to escape, fresh air was supplied to the fire, which flashed over into the house (as there was no fire curtain to stop it, or open loft to chimney it) toward the open exit doors at the top of the balcony. Those that were not killed outright (some decapitated by the force) understandably panicked and joined in the push for the doors. Many were crushed or trampled, most were then killed by the smoke and fumes. When firefighters entered the theatre, an estimated 15 minutes after the fire had started, bodies of those who died at some of the exits were piled seven deep. Over 200 of those killed were young children. In some cases, entire families were killed.

What is particularly striking in all of these examples is how the disregard of fire safety rules and practices is the key factor. Hudson writes, “While some new laws were enacted in the aftermath, most of the problems were the result of violations of the existing laws.” You can say “new buildings are safer than old ones” or “we have better laws now” or “we’re smarter than people back then” or any number of commonly-heard excuses, but they do not hold up to the reality of the situation. The Iroquois Theater fire happened in a building that was brand new. Many of the factors which amplified the fire were due not to lack of knowledge or old technology, but by the fact that the current rules, regulations and technology were not being used. In other words, the fire could have been kept under control or even avoided even with the weaker laws and technology of the time.

Fire regulations do not stop fires from spreading. You need to implement these fire regulations and enforce them to actually have an effect. Hudson concludes his article with a list of basic fire safety equipment and procedures for theatres.

In a subsequent article, Backstage Jobs reminds us that “Fires happen in theatres. Really. Even now“. He shows a sampling of 14 theatres destroyed or damaged by fires in just the past 10 years. It is also just over a month since the eighth anniversary of the Station Fire in Rhode Island, in which one hundred people died because a small group of people chose to ignore basic fire regulations.

I hope you read all of this and take it to heart. The next time a director asks you to cover an exit sign, imagine telling a parent whose child was decapitated and burned alive that it was worth it because the lighting looked so much better.