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Theatre and Fire: An Unwelcome Association

Brent Stainer • Feature • October 1, 2007

Few words frighten a house manager or house electrician more than hearing of an imminent fire inspection. Fire officials are often seen as insensitive to the needs of our artistic expressions. The truth is, most fire officials are ignorant of the inner workings of theatres. They may understand the required volume of water to suppress a 1,500-square-foot fire, but they may not recognize the importance of a border hung downstage of the third electric. Conversely, a fly operator may un-derstand the intricacies of the brake rail, but might not know the reason for, and importance of, the fire curtain.

I am in a very unique position. I have the two best jobs in the world. As a lighting designer, I enjoy the creative process with the director and other designers to create the magic that we can present to our audience. My other full-time occupation is as a fire captain in a fair-sized city of 100,000. My city hosts a dozen or so theatres, and my connections to the theatre and the fire department have brought me questions from both sides of the table — each trying to understand why the other is so unyielding. I would like to share some thoughts that might shed some light on the topic.

Fire departments feel justified in their close scrutiny of theatres. Looking back in history, it’s easy to see why. In 1903, a fire at the Iroquois Theatre killed over 600 people. Other tragic examples include the Laurier Palace fire in Montreal, the Cocoanut Grove fire in Boston and the Beverly Hills Supper Club fire in Kentucky. To avoid thinking that these tragedies only happened in the distant past, we have only to remember the recent disaster in West Warwick, R.I., when a fire in the Station nightclub killed 100 people. Although this fire was not specifically in a theatre, the set pieces used in nightclubs, and the staging, lights and pyrotechnics, are the same as those used in most theatres.

The goal of this article is not to frighten you, but to help you understand fire codes and the rea-soning behind these seemingly inane rules. In the U.S., fire departments typically adopt one of two available sets of rules for fire prevention: the International Fire Code and/or the Uniform Fire Code. These codes are written because of specific, identifiable incidents; they are not the random whim of a bureaucrat. For example, the Iroquois Theatre fire prompted officials to require exits to open outward instead of inward. Unfortunately, the fire codes are written in blood.Our efforts focus on two sides of the problem: equipment designed to eliminate or reduce the danger of fires, and rules or policies that provide a safer environment. Basic rules of fire safety should be adopted as policy by each theatre. These involve basic efforts for the combined benefit of our audience and the theatre.

Exits

Guess what — exits can’t be blocked. You can’t just think, “It’s easy to see that there are six exits from the auditorium — blocking one off to add a platform for a specific production shouldn’t be a big deal.” Basically, any time a fire exit is marked as such, it needs to be available as such — anything else is false advertising.

Now, if it is important that a portable platform be set up so that it blocks the exit — contact your local fire marshal. Some possibilities are: 1) Remove the exit sign (or cover it up), then temporarily reduce your audience size accordingly; 2) Build the platform to enable it to be easily and quickly removed from the exit and assign a stage hand for the task; or 3) Perhaps you have more exits than required, and you can get permission to delete an exit (and the exit sign). But none of these can happen without the fire marshal’s assistance. Let that sink in for a second. You MUST have the fire marshal’s assistance any time you change exiting — even temporarily!

We have all heard the saying, “Better to ask forgiveness than to ask permission.” That is com-pletely untrue in this situation.

If you take the initiation with fire officials and become known as a theatre that takes fire safety seriously — they are much more likely to work with you on temporary issues such as this. How-ever, if they know you as the theatre that tries to work around them, they will keep you under close scrutiny.

Electrical Items

Dimmer rooms and electrical distribution need to have 30 inches of clearance. This allows rapid access to the panels to turn off power and to prevent combustibles and metals from contacting energized equipment.

I am fully aware that stages are busy places. Room is at a premium, yet it’s worth the effort. To make it safer and easier for all involved, mark 30 inches of clearance on the floor with striped tape — and enforce it.

Most theatres use 12-gauge cord for extensions to lights. Ensure that you do not have smaller 14- or 16-gauge. These are not rated to handle the full 20 amp capacity loads we often see in theatres. When overloaded, these smaller cords heat up and are a significant source of fires. I have personally witnessed three! As a lighting designer, I may use smaller gauge cords for specific, isolated uses — such as wiring marquee chase lights around a sign, or a practical lantern hanging from the set when larger extension cords were simply not necessary or appropriate. In these cases, ensure the load is within the capacity of the extension cord. Work with an electrician if there is any doubt.

Occasionally, fire officials will note that extension cords are not suitable for permanent use. If you find yourself in this situation, you can remind them that 1) they are temporary — they change each show; 2) they are only used when a lighting operator or stagehand is present; and 3) this is an industry standard. Sometimes, education goes both ways. Be familiar with USITT standards and, although you don’t want to argue with the officials, be patient enough to educate them.

Pyrotechnics
One sticky point is pyrotechnics. I don’t want to get too much into pyro, as that is a topic for a separate article, but here are a few tidbits.

Save yourself the headache — get a permit from the fire department. They are easy to get, and often free. A permit will ensure that a responsible individual is in charge of the effect. Permits usually require that a stagehand be standing by in the wings with a fire extinguisher in hand. The requirements are not restrictive; they are reasonable and proactive.

Purchasing prepackaged and preloaded pyro also will go a long way toward easing the fire mar-shal’s concerns. One point of interest: Candles (or any open flame) also require a fire permit in theatres. Churches are typically exempt from that requirement because they use them for religious ceremonies. Theatres are not.

Fire Barriers
Another concern of fire officials is the alteration or breeching of fire doors and walls. Fire barriers — which consist of walls and doors with a two-hour fire resistance — stop smoke and fire travel for the protection of the audience and limit fire damage. Aside from the obvious responsibility we have for our audience’s well being, there is a bottom-line benefit as well — a fire confined to the stage is terrible, but a fire that is not confined to the stage may be fatal to the theatre.
It’s easy to punch a hole through drywall to pass a cord through. If it is truly required, do it prop-erly and seal up the hole when you are done. If it’s not a firewall, holes are not an issue. However, check this with your fire officials.

Containing fires is also why fire doors must be kept closed and not propped open with doorstops. If unsure, ask your fire official or engineer which doors are fire doors.

Set Pieces and Safety Equipment

To create the illusions we are after, theatre often uses lightweight, inexpensive set pieces and soft goods. While these look great and suit our needs, they are often combustible. With only a few exceptions, theatre fires that resulted in large losses of life were due primarily to curtains and sets catching fire. With the tools available to us today, there is no excuse to not add flame proofing to your budget for sets and soft goods. Also, maintain records of flame proofing; fire officials may ask for proof of treatment. And keep a schedule for updates to your fireproofing — fire treatments don’t last forever.

All stages should have rudimentary safety equipment — specifically, fire alarm systems, fire ex-tinguishers and first aid kits. Fire alarm systems should be checked annually. Please do not disable or bypass smoke or flame detectors in any way. Doing so will needlessly endanger your audience and may open you and your theatre to a huge amount of liability. If your smoke detectors are causing you grief because of theatrical fog or smoke, you could change your detectors to a flame detector or a “rate or rise” detector. Again, check with your alarm company.

The two other tools I mentioned — fire extinguishers and first aid kits — are so common that they are frequently overlooked. Both require only rudimentary training. Learn how to use a fire extinguisher. As a firefighter, I often have witnessed people who are unable to operate an extin-guisher. They just didn’t know how to make it work in the heat of the moment. Your fire marshal can provide you with extinguisher training for little or no cost.

Specialized Equipment

Other, more specialized fire protection equipment may be found in larger theatres.
Fire sprinklers provide a great amount of protection for your theatre. Unfortunately, they are sometimes regarded as obstacles or as a convenient place to hang a costume. Hopefully, you will never see them in operation; however, if there is a fire, you don’t want to unwittingly sabotage their effectiveness. I have been to several fires that could have been catastrophic, in both lives and property, if it had not been for the fire sprinklers. Please, treat them with respect — they are an important safety feature in your theatre.

Fire curtains are one of the most misunderstood of these specialized tools. The purpose of these curtains is to be the barrier that contains the fire and smoke on the stage, protecting the audience and allowing patrons time to escape. Fire curtains should be operated by one of two methods: a manual pull ring (usually by the stage manager’s position) and/or through an automatic fusible link that allows the curtain to fall.

Unfortunately, I often have witnessed set pieces brought forward through the proscenium, thereby blocking the fire curtain from falling. I am aware that some sets look great extending out past the proscenium, but this is where we need to understand the reason for the fire curtain — audience protection. The requirement for the fire curtain to be lowered must be considered at the earliest stages of the set design. Fire authorities take this so seriously that if your theatre’s fire curtain is found upon inspection to be inoperable, the authorities might make you remove your sets immediately — or even shut down your theatre altogether. Make it easy on yourself: Incorporate the fire curtain into your set design. During the Iroquois Theatre fire, lighting instruments blocked the fire curtain. If it had been free to lower, it is likely that several hundred lives would have been saved.

Similarly, smoke doors above the stage have a straightforward purpose: They allow smoke and fire gasses to escape the stage. These should also have two methods of operation: an automatic fusible link and a manual crank or handle. These are often on the upstage wall. Assign a stagehand this task in advance of an emergency.

Stages larger than 1,000 square feet are also required to have a 100-foot fire hose on each side of the stage. Of course, this also entails appropriate maintenance and training in their use. Imagine a fire extinguisher that had ten times the ability to extinguish fires — and didn’t run out. That’s a house fire hose. It’s a valuable tool in an emergency.

Code Specifics
Devastating theatre fires almost inevitably occur on the stage, and fire codes are written with this in mind. The ability of suspended soft goods and scenery to quickly spread fire is the reason for this concern, thus the extraordinary fire protection measures.

I have received hushed phone calls from theatre managers wanting to know if their theatre is re-quired to have a fire curtain or smoke doors. If you don’t already have them, it is unlikely that you would be required to add a fire curtain or smoke doors unless you have added to your stage or fly loft.

Requirements are determined by the size and the height of your stage. The International Fire Code states that a stage larger than 1,000 square feet or higher than 50 feet requires emergency ventilation, such as smoke doors. Stages larger than 1,000 square feet and higher than 50 feet must have a fire sprinkler system. If the stage height is more than 50 feet, the proscenium needs a fire curtain; however, a stage less than 50 feet high does not require one. If the stage height is more than 50 feet, there also must be a two-hour firewall between the stage and audience. This entails the fire curtain, fire doors and an intact rated firewall (one without holes punched through).

Note that any existing fire protection equipment in your theatre must be maintained and available — whether or not it’s required for your venue. If you have it, it must work.

Some Final Thoughts
I would like to leave you with two points. First, learn how and when to use the equipment you have available to you. Is your stage manager trained? How about your stagehands? Do they know when to open the fire doors — or how to? Do your ushers have training in fire extinguisher use? Or CPR? Or are they there only for the free tickets? Does the cast know your emergency procedures? Should they help in any way?

Second, don’t be afraid of your fire officials. Although they often look at safety procedures dif-ferently than theatre professionals, this is good as it usually offers additional insight into a theatre’s safety. If you are proactive and approach them with the desire to make a safe experience while you create quality theatre, you will find them anxious to help you.

When we honestly evaluate our goals, we acknowledge that the safety of our cast, crew and audience is paramount. Theatre personnel and fire officials all agree: With a little forethought and coordination with authorities, creating the magic onstage and doing it in a safe manner can coexist.
 

Brent Stainer is a fire captain and lighting designer in Everett, Wash.

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