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Theater and Fire: Fire Captain and LD Brent Stainer Looks at Important Safety Considerations

Brent Stainer • October 2019Safety • October 2, 2019

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 theaters. 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 city of 100,000. Everett, WA, hosts a dozen or so theaters, and I have received 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.

The goal of this article is to help you understand fire codes and the reasoning 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. Unfortunately, fire codes are written in blood. For example, the 1903 fire at the Iroquois Theatre in Chicago, which killed over 600 people, prompted officials to require exits to open outward instead of inward. Fire code 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. 

All marked exits need to be completely free from obstruction.
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’s 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 stagehand 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’ve all heard the saying, “Better to ask forgiveness than to ask permission.” That is completely untrue in this situation.

If you take the initiative with fire officials and become known as a theater that takes fire safety seriously—they are much more likely to work with you on temporary issues such as this. However, if they know you as the theater 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 theaters use 12-gauge cable 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 theaters. 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 cables/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.

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 theater. 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 and which walls are firewalls before punching a hole for a cable to pass through.

Set Pieces and Safety Equipment
With only a few exceptions, theater 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 flameproofing to your budget for sets and soft goods. Also, maintain records of flameproofing; 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—fire alarm systems, fire extinguishers, 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 theater 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 for your staff, crew and house management to use them. 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 theaters. Requirements are determined by the size and the height of your stage. Note that any existing fire protection equipment in your theater must be maintained and available—whether or not it’s required for your venue. If you have it, it must work.

Fire sprinklers provide a great amount of protection for your theater. 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 theater.
Stage managers should know when to lower the fire curtain.

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 theater’s fire curtain is found upon inspection to be inoperable, the authorities might make you remove your sets immediately—or even shut down your theater altogether. Make it easy on yourself: Incorporate consideration of 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 gases 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.Smoke doors allow heat and smoke to escape above the stage. Smoke door winches manually open doors above the stage.

Stages larger than 1,000 square feet are 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.

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? Does the cast know your emergency procedures? Second, don’t be afraid of your fire officials. Although they often look at safety procedures differently than theater professionals, if you are proactive and approach them with the desire to make a safe experience while you create quality theater, you will find them anxious to help you. Theater personnel and fire officials all will agree: With a little forethought and coordination, creating the magic onstage and doing it in a safe manner can coexist.  

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