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Fire Safety

Discussion in 'Stage Management and Facility Operations' started by Charc, Mar 13, 2007.

  1. Charc

    Charc Well-Known Member

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    I've been pondering fire safety at my school's theatre (and school in general) a lot lately. It seems, to me at least, that we break codes right and left. I've been trying to mentally think through what needs to happen in case of fire or evacuation, and how to go about preparing for a possible fire. Half or so of the buildings at my school are old, and all wood (150 years). These predate any sprinklers, fire suppression system, or thought into fire escape. The only thing we have are alarms (no to negligible amount of extinguishers) in some buildings. Some, more modern buildings, have fire safety in mind. I don't think these buildings have sprinklers though (unless they are recessed into the drop ceiling and drop down when the alarm is triggered.). I'm worried about these buildings because we regularly break fire code in them. For instance, when we have grade wide meeting in the student cafe, 70 person capacity, we not only break capacity, but we move 90 chairs in-front of the main doors, making them in accessible. I assume that not providing a clear route of egress is another violation. But enough about these buildings.

    The theatre is another older building. It is not as old, but I think it is old enough, with a high enough wood content, to be a note worthy concern for fire safety. When the building was acquired, it was retrofitted with sprinklers and a fire alarm system. I am led to believe that the sprinklers could be installed incorrectly, do to an inconsistent vertical alignment. Our fire doors, of which we have many, are consistently wedged open; even the big sign reading "FIRE DOOR DO NOT BLOCK". During performances, 2 fire exits signs are partially obscured from view by curtains in the house. There is no fire suppression system in the theatre itself, just surrounding hallways and rooms, but not offices and I think not storage rooms. We have a fire curtain that, apparently, is operated when the stage heats up enough, though I am weary of anything told at my school. The fire screen is also consistently blocked by the set, or set elements. We have some vents in the roof over the stage, behind the proscenium that I believe are to be used in the event of a fire, as they can not be closed once opened, unless you climb on the roof. Though no one is quite sure how to open them (apparently there is a rope somewhere in the mess that is our rigging). We have a few fire doors in the lobby that I think are on solenoids, presumably connected to the alarm, but may just be magnetically held open. Regardless of how they are held open, they are blocked by trash cans and a piano. Extinguishers and hoses are also often blocked by set pieces backstage, or other junk. Another concern for fire is that apparently we have an abnormal power supply that does some funky stuff with our equipment, and has blown a few lamps. In addition, due to additions to the building, egress seems to be a maze. And on a normal assembly, when we are at 1/3 capacity, it takes a solid 5 minute for everyone to leave, through the narrow isles and hallways. Oh wait, did I mention capacity? We occasionally break capacity. At a recent assembly we had about 1,000 people in our theatre. We are only allowed 815. What people don’t realize is that the house is built on a precarious situation. It’s built on a 4 foot raised crawlspace, of questionable integrity. The 815 person limit is due to load bearing concerns. Oh, and our houselights are not connected to the alarm system. Our houselights are actually just par cans in the catwalks. Due to what I’ve seen first hand, a likely source of fire in the theatre is the lights itself. I touched a twofer that houselights were on the day, and it was physically HOT to the touch. That unsettled me a little bit. Oh, and in terms of fire containment all the windows in this place are these old metal things, NONE of which provide a seal. We have fresh air leaking in all the time, but it would not be adequate to allow smoke to escape.

    I’m unsure of how to proceed with the situation. We’ve had no formal training on the worst-case-scenario, and have little to no adult supervision during the running of shows. As I am often SMing or ASMing I feel as if I should take the responsibility to make sure the house and my crew are ready for such an eventuality. So what I have so far in my mind, should a fire be identified. (I’ll probably get flak for some of the stuff on the list, but I’d like to learn, so by all means critique it.)

    1. Since I’m already on headset, I’d tell board op to black out, and I’ll bring up the houselights to 75% intensity. The controls are 3 feet away. I’d say 75% because I am worried about the electrical system. Though I don’t think we have any emergency lighting.
    2. Notify audience. A 3 second sprint from the stage manager’s position is the fire panel. It has a built in microphone which PAs through the alarm(I think), which (if I read the panel correctly) when activated also activates the alarm. I intend to say: “We are experiencing technical difficulties. Please proceed to the nearest exit.”
    3. Should the fire be small and nearby, I intend to grab the extinguisher next to the panel and attempt to subdue it. Should the fire be larger and on stage, I intend to manually activate the fire curtain. I believe it is on automatic release, but I’m sure there is an automatic release, though I haven’t been able to figure it out. Should there be significant smoke risk, I’d open the vents above stage.
    4. I’d then proceed to evacuate, stopping to help anyone who is having difficulty getting out, and clearing anything that may have gotten in the way of an exit.

    Sorry to write out such a long post, but safety is an issue I take seriously. Please let me know what you think.
    Thanks, Charlie
     
  2. Footer

    Footer Senior Team Senior Team Premium Member

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    First, wow. Second, there are usually links throughout a fire curtain system that will melt at a certain temperature, and they will start the fire curtain down. Ceiling vents either open by heat or by a single handle that you pull that releases rings and rigging that lets the vents open. The vents are designer to open easily, not close easily. Third, if you are concerned about anything safety wise its your districts responsibility to take care of it, period. If you feel so inclined (which I believe you are) write a letter to your school board stating your feelings, they will have to at least acknowledge it in an open meeting, and therefore it will be on record that something is not correct. Also, give your fire marshal an anonymous call (or you can state who you are, its up to you) and have them do an inspection of the school. Fire marshals do not like schools that are firetraps, they tend to do something about it. There is money there to do these fixes, the state will provide it under life safety concerns. Also, I have only worked at one theatre that the house lights came up when the alarm goes off. Most simply set off the emergency lighting (which you should be checking weekly if not before every show). But most importantly as a student it IS NOT your job to take care of fire training and evacuation. Its your job to get out when the alarm goes off, period. Don't be a hero, let someone who has actually lived a bit longer do that. The professional world its a different story (but its usually the house managers job to be the hero), but its your job to keep yourself safe.
     
    Last edited: Mar 13, 2007
  3. Footer

    Footer Senior Team Senior Team Premium Member

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    You have a school board, board of trustees, something, your principal, head master, or whatever works for someone. Talk to whoever is in charge, and call the fire marshal. Those funds are there, and if they are not, there is a much larger problem.
     
  4. soundlight

    soundlight Well-Known Member

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    If it's a private school, it probably has one of the following boards of power: board of trustees, board of directors, or maybe the headmaster/principal has a "cabinet" or sorts. I've seen all of these in different private schools (but actually have never attended private school, only went to Exeter for a summer program!), and whichever of these is the board of power is who you should talk to.
     
  5. Van

    Van CBMod CB Mods Premium Member

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    I think you have a good start on your letter to your board of Trustees, In any event Private or Public the school does answer to the state for it's acrediation and operating permits. Now before charging in like a bull in a china closet take a soft poll of the administration there at the school. Find out if they are aware of the issues, find out if they've been brought up before. One thing I've found out oer the years is the surest way to get a place shut down altogether or to get yourself run out of a place is to run into a board of directors heads first waving your hands and screaming, Stodgy old farts don't like it when kids point out their oversights. If you approach the higher ups in a more composed and mature manner it's going go much better for you in the long run. Many times we see a percieved lack of concern or even an outright conspiritorial attitude towards certain issues when in reality people just don't think about those things. If people are blocking open doors in the lobby when there are pefectly good magnetic catches on them, point out that the don't need to be blocked open, if the catches < and they are tied into the fire alarm I guarantee, they release the door when an alarm event is triggered.> are not working ask about getting a work order filled out for them. There has to be some sort of maintainence protocol fo rinfrastructure support.
    The biggest issues I see are your overloaded twofers for the house lights and blocking open of doors. < course obscured access to fire suppression equipment is right up there too.> The twofer issue needs to be brought up and addressed soon. The blocking doors policy needs to be addressed and/or brought to the attention of the vice-principal < that's usually where maintainenece issues wind up>
    I wouldn't freak too much about the occupancy rating on your theatre meaning it's going to collapse. Rooms are not occupancy rated according to load bearing capacity they are rated according to fire egress capacity. But it does mean you have an escape issue. Your fire curtain cannot be blocked byt scenery plan and simple. That's a major no no but beleive me if the fire curtain is triggered it should have no problem barrelling right through almost any structure in it's way, that's they way they are intended to operate, Woe to the actor that gets caught under one. The Roof vents should be rigged the the fire curtain activator rope. Typically there is a fusible link inline with the fire rope and/or a small hatchet mounted near where the rope runs to the deck next to the proscenium,
    < Oh yeah that's what that little peice of ancient red painted trim chain is doing bolted to the wall.>
    I hear you and sympathize with you and I commend you for your concern for public safety. I also applaude your responsibility in recognizing these issues where obviously so many have been blind. Again I caution you about going off half - cocked take it slow and don't piss anybody off or you'll get no where and your folks will be looking for a new place to send "that trouble making kid" :mrgreen:
     
  6. mikepokermaniac

    mikepokermaniac Member

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    I also am worried about fire saftey in my university's theatre. On March 3rd, we had a dimmer smoke up in the basement electrical room and set off an alarm. It was a saturday night and we just finished the final show of a run an hour ago and were working on strike. When the alarm went off we had no clue what to do. this has never happened before in our theatre and no one knew what to do. We did evacuate everyone but what scares me is that if it was an hour and a half before, we would be half way through act II. Noone has told us what to do in the event of an alarm going off or if there really is a fire.

    The main thing i'm concerned about is a procedure for an evacuation and what certain people need to do (like the House Manager finding out what happened).

    The theatre is a converted gym and track from about 150 years ago. Its a black box so there isn't a fire curtain or vents or really any kind of fire equipment other than a fire extingusher on the outside of the tech box and by the fire exit.

    OH! and the best part.... when the fire alarm went off from the dimmer blowing up, the call box to the fire dept. was UNPLUGGED. it was beeping for about 2 weeks then a guy came in on the tuesday before and supposedly fixed it. my guess is he didn't know what to do with it so he unplugged it. so the fire dept didn't come until we called them on a cell phone... along with campus police.

    and a random question... when the fire alarm is triggered is it an automatice 2 alarm fire? or do they wait until they get here to figure it out?
     
  7. Van

    Van CBMod CB Mods Premium Member

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    Depends on the venue, Many structures, because of their size or thier business license are listed as automatic 5 alarmers. In the case of your theatre, being a blackbox, it might just be a standard alarm. My theatre just bought our entire city block, we are an automatic 3 alarm as you are going to need that many men just to cover the basics on a structure this size. The Portland World Trade Centers are all automatic five alarms. the other thing besides size is business type , a lumber yard is going to quickly evolve so it's usually listed as a higher alarm ttype. A chemical plant is obviously also going to be rated higher and involve an automatic Hazmat response. hope that helps.
     
  8. gafftaper

    gafftaper Senior Team Senior Team Fight Leukemia

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    Being a former High School Teacher I want to stress the take the tactful route approach. Going straight to the highest power in the school is a great way to have everyone hate you. An anonymous call to the fire marshal is a great way to get your theater shut down until everything is fixed, which could be years right? I suggest a middle ground. Get yourself an "expert" to come in and confirm your suspicions and then approach an administrator who you find the "nicest" with a list of your concerns and hopefully your "expert" at your side.

    Where do you live? Maybe someone around The Booth here can help? If not I bet there is a college, community theater, or other professional theater technician who would be willing to come in and take a look at your equipment and back you up. The tech world is full of nice people (not just the ones you meet here) so get on the phone. Have the expert help you build a list of specific concerns and then approach the principle with your concerns. Finally, don't approach your administration with a "YOU HAVE TO FIX THIS NOW" attitude. They need to be educated without feeling like you are a threatening punk kid. Your approach should be, "I've been researching and learning about how theaters should be run and I became concerned about the safety of our theater so I found this expert to come in and take a look at our theater, this is what he/she found."

    Good luck and keep us posted.
     
    Last edited: Mar 14, 2007
  9. dvlasak

    dvlasak Active Member

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