SHALL THEATRES BE MADE SAFE?
The means by which theatre buildings can be made reasonably safe, so far as regards the preservation of life in the event of fire, have never before been so well understood as now. The amusement season had progressed but little toward the hey-day of its gayety when the world was startled by the announcement of one of the most dreadful holocausts of which record has ever been made. After the shock which this intelligence naturally caused had in a measure subsided, officers of Fire Departments and others less directly interested in the Fire Service directed their attention to a careful consideration of the subject of theatre fires. If possible, it was of course desirable that theatre buildings should be so constructed that the fire hazard would be reduced to the minimum. However, it was soon discovered that the scenery and paraphernalia necessary for the successful presentation of a play were highly inflammable, and that it would be impossible to do more toward making a play-house unlikely to burn than to so arrange and protect its lights that this combustible material should not be given a chance to catch fire. Granted, then, that theatres will catch fire and will burn, as it is no more possible to prevent fires from occuring in theatres than it is in dwelling houses, without going to an expense that to all intents and purposes would be prohibitory, the next best thing will be to build in such a manner that human life need not be sacrificed in case a place of public assemblage does fall a prey to the so-called ” devouring element.”
Several weeks ago the various public halls and play-houses in New York were inspected by the Battalion Chiefs of the Fire Department in whose districts they were situated, and reports of such inspection were forwarded to the Board of Fire Commissioners. Embodied in the reports were suggestions relative to the improvements that could be made in such public buildings. Similar inspections were made in most of the other large cities of the country; and, indeed, so great was the public excitement and interest regarding the danger to which theatre audiences were exposed that, it may be said without exaggeration, in every country of the world where there are buildings devoted to the drama, efforts, generally more or less puerile we must confess, were made to assure the safety of those persons who assembled in them. In New York, at least, some good has been accomplished. Diagrams showing the exits of public buildings—churches alone excepted, but in them there is little danger of a panic occurring, owing to a reason palpable to everybody—are now required to be printed upon the bill of the play, or whatever it may be. An auditor may familiarize himself with the best means of escape should it become desirable to vacate at short notice. The diagram will point out to him the most available exit, even should it be one of which he would otherwise know nothing. Doors and passageways leading to adjoining buildings or adjacent roofs are thus made known to a person who might naturally seek the way by which he entered. Undoubtedly this innovation will eventually be of service. By recommendation of the Department other changes of a minor character were made by the managers of many of the theatres. Additional exits were constructed, and where it was possible to make a beneficial change without spending much money it was generally made. Theatre managers are like everybody else ; they will not lay out money unless they see a way of getting it back again. If an audience will assemble in a fire-trap as readily as it wlil in a wellconstructed building, the theatre owners and managers cannot be made to see how they will benefit themselves by spending money to make their houses safe. But for the few measures which have been adopted to add to the safety of places of amusement, amusement-seekers should give thanks.
The Commissioners of the New York Fire Department had a twofold object in view when they ordered an inspection of theatres. One object, and perhaps the lesser one, has already been referred to. It was desired also to get sufficient information on which to prepare a law making it impossible to build faulty theatres in the future. The reports sent in by the Battalion Chiefs showed that most of the old theatres were dangerous in case of fire because they had not been constructed properly. With the exception of one theatre, the buildings were devoid of brick proscenium arches. The partitions between the stage portions and the auditoriums were lightly constructed and useless to prevent flames from passing either way. Few of the theatres were supplied with effective machinery for extinguishing fires in the scenery, or with telegraphic communication with Fire Headquarters. In case of flames breaking out on the stage in any one of these theatres, and becoming unmanageable, there was nothing to prevent smoke and fire from extending at once into the auditorium. Although efforts had been made in several theatres to counteract the danger of a rapid spread of fire by providing extra means of exit, yet the report showed that these exits were not easily accessible, and it was believed that they would be of little use if a panic was created by a fire. The reports of the Battalion Chiefs were placed on file, and the Commissioners have endeavored to make the best possible use of the information which they contain. Notices were sent to all the theatre proprietors how a theatre ought to be arranged and furnished with means of protection against fire. It was recommended that all the theatres be placed in direct telegraphic communication with Fire Headquarters ; that the spaces over the proscenium arches be filled in with fire-proof material; that sliding skylights be placed in the roofs over the stage portions, and so arranged that they could be opened and an upward draught thus created by cutting a rope on the stage floors; that extra means of exit be marked plainly, so that they could be distinguished by persons in the auditoriums ; and that buckets filled with water, hooks and axes be kept in convenient places in the buildings and marked “To be used for fire purposes only.”
It is next to impossible, however, to put a brick proscenium arch in one of the old theatres without spending a large sum of money. It would be necessary to build up a new’ partition-wall between the stage and the auditorium from the foundation, and that would involve a great amount of tearing away and repairing other portions of the building. The Fire Commissioners have no power to compel owners of theatres to put in brick proscenium arches, and a law compelling them to such action would be unconstitutional. It is for the theatre-owners and the amusement-loving public to decide whether it will pay to make these places safe by proper rearrangement. The two new theatres, Wallack’s and Harrigan & Hart’s, have been constructed more in harmony with correct principles, and they are much safer than the older ones. Regarding theatres hereafter to be erected in the city, a new bill has been drawm up by Inspector Esterbook, of the Buildings Bureau, by direction of the Fire Commissioners. In this bill, which will be sent to the Legislature in a few days, provision is made to prevent the opening of any theatre or opera house, constructed after the passage of the act, unless certain well-defined requirements have been complied with. The most important of these requirements are the following :
No portion of a theatre building shall be used as a hotel, boarding or lodging house, as a factory, or for storage purposes. This restriction relates not only to that portion of the building which contains the auditorium and stage, but also applies to the entire structure, and it prohibits scenery-making and scene-painting inside the building. The walls of the theatre shall be built of stone or brick, and any fagade or front constructed of iron shall be backed with brick of such thickness as to make the walls, independent of the facing, conform as to thickness with the requirements of the building law. A fire-proof wall of masonry shall separate the auditorium from the stage, and shall extend at least four feet above the roof, and be coped with stone or terra cotta. Above the arch spanning the stage opening there shall be constructed a relieving arch, and the intervening space between the arches may be filled with hollow brick, or other approved material which is fire-proof. Besides the stage opening, the wall between the stage and auditorium shall have doors provided with iron shutters. All walls, floors and partitions in that part of the building which cotains the auditorium, the entrance vestibule, or any room or passage devoted to the use of the audience, shall be constructed of fire-proof material. The walls separating the dressing rooms from the stage shall be built of brick, and the passages shall be made fire-proof and provided with self-closing wrought-iron doors. All stage scenery shall be made safe against fire to the satisfaction of the Fire Department.
All seats in the auditorium, except those in the boxes, shall be fastened to the floor firmly. The aisles shall be at least three feet and six inches wide in the narrowftt parts, and they shall be made to increase in width towards the exits, one inch for every five feet. The exits shall be at least as wide as the aisles. The amount of floor-room for the use of the audience must be 250 superficial feet for every 100 persons. Gradients or inclined planes are to be employed instead of steps, where possible, to overcome slight differences of level in the aisles’ and passages. All enclosed passages, corridors and staircases shall have on both sides a strong hand-rail, firmly secured to the wall. No passage leading to any stairway, communicating with any entrance or exit, shall be less than four feet in width. A theatre accommodating 300 persons shall have two exits at least; for 500 persons, three exits, and no exit less than five feet in width. For every additional 100 persons accommodated twenty inches additional width must be allowed in the exits. All doors at the exits shall open outward, and they shall not be locked while the building is opened to the public. Distinct and separate places of exit and entrance shall be provided for each gallery above the first. All stairs shall be constructed of fire-proof material throughout. Stairways serving for the exit of fifty persons shall be at least four fe|t wide, and if covered or winding they must be five feet wide. Six inches must be added to their width for each additional fifty persons. At least two independent staircases, with direct exterior outlets, shall be provided for each gallery and for the stage. All stairways leading to the upper galleries shall be enclosed by walls of masonry on both sides, and the stairs must have suitable landings to make them safe. Any steam’boiler which may be required for heating or for other purposes must be outside the building, and covered by a fire-proof roof. Stand pipes shall be provided with hose attachments on each floor and gallery. Buckets of water, hand-pumps, or other portable fire-extinguishing apparatus, shall be kept on the stage in readiness for use. Gas jets in the building must be protected by wire netting, where necessary, to avoid danger from the lights. Every exit shall have over it on the inside of the building the word “exit” painted in letters not less than eight inches high.
We give the principal provisions of this bill, of the passage of which by the Legislature there is little doubt, in the hope that the Firemen of other States will endeavor to secure the enactment of similar bills by their own Legislatures. Several of the State Associations of Firemen have committees appointed especially with a view to the procurement of legislation favorable to the interests of the Fire Service. A number of the State Legislatures are now in session, and now is the time for the Firemen of the country to move in this matter.