The Essential Conditions of Safety in Theatres.

The Essential Conditions of Safety in Theatres.

THE safety of a theatre may be said to depend on six principal factors, viz.: (1) The site; (2) The plan; (3) The construction; (4) The interior equipment and arrangement; (5) The management; (6) The periodical inspection. A study of the chief causes of theatre fires is important and necessary to a proper understanding of the subject. The knowledge the principal causes to which theatre catastrophes have been attributed will do much to enable us to avoid, or to remove, defects which, if allowed to remain, may at any time precipitate a calamity. I must, however, content myself with giving the following brief Summary:

(a). Bad location : exposure to fire from neighboring buildings.

Bad planning : faulty interior arrangement.

Inferior or improper construction : structural defects, defective flues, timber near flues.

(b). Wrong use of the premises : dangerous trades carried on in stores or shops in the theatre building.

Defective lighting apparatus : oil lamps, gas and electric light; matches, torches, spirit lamps; leaky gas-pipes, gas explosions .

Defective heating apparatus.

Accumulation of highly inflammable stage material.

Use of fireworks, colored lights.explosivesandof open fires on the stage; use of fire-arms; carelessness in fireworks laboratory, dancing on the stage with lighted torches or flambeaux.

Accidents to scene-hoisting machinery, also hasty shifting of light and highly inflammable scenery in too close vicinity of powerful unprotected gas-flames.

Carelessness in lighting border lights.

Non-removal of rubbish and oily waste, and ignition of same, either by spontaneous combustion or by the careless throwing away of lighted matches.

Smoking in the theatre in the actors’ dressing-rooms, and on the stage; careless throwing away of lighted cigars or cigarettes.

Careless handling and upsetting of candles or oil lamps on the stage.

Storage and undue accumulation of large quantities of scenic decorations or inflammable material of any kind near the stage.

Careless handling of actors’ wardrobes in dressing-rooms.

Use of stage or of loft over auditorium for a carpenters’ or painters’ shop.

Even where the indirect causes enumerated under (a) are avoided by having a theatre suitably located, well planned and properly constructed, the moredirect causes of fire mentioned under (A) should be carefully guarded against by good management, strict rules and regulations, by having a well drilled stall of stage employes, and instituting periodical inspections of all the details forming together the equipment and interior arrangement.


Statistics of theatre fires show that out of a list of two hundred and eighty-nine known up to the year 1878,

In 1881, when these statistics included three hundred and seventythree theatre fires, the percentage remained almost the same, viz ;

Those figures would tend to show a large preponderance of fires immediately following a performance, and prove conclusively that the safety of theatres depends largely upon a careful and minute inspection of the building after each performance. The danger of fire, notwithstanding the above figures, is really greatest during a performance, but the number of casualties at these hours is not so large as might be expected, because of the stricter and more careful watching, upon which a judicious theatre management should wisely insist.

The number of theatres annually destroyed by fire is very large. According to the carefully collected statistics of Herr l oelsch, two hundred and nine theatres were burned in the eleven years from 1871 to 1881, making an average of nineteen such buildings per year.

From 1882 to 1888, theatre fires have occurred as follows:

Many of these fires signify not only loss of property but loss of life as well. The large theatre-fire calamities of Brooklyn, Nice, Vienna, Paris, Exeter (England,) and Oporto (Portugal) alone, were the cause of the loss of about one thousand six hundred human lives. The large number of fires annually occurring in theatres, and the incidental great danger to the people in such buildings, is easily explained by the many possible causes of fire cited above.


If we consider the building only as such, the subject naturally divides itself into the prevention and the extinction of fire. But, looking at it from a different point-of-view, and taking into consideration that during certain hours of the day or evening the building is occupied by a vast crowd in the auditorium, and by actors, actresses, supers, chorus, balletgirls and stage employes,.often numbering several hundred people on the stage, the safety of the building becomes of secondary importance in case a fire should break out shortly before or during a performance. It then, from a humane point of view, clearly becomes chiefly a question of the safety of the spectators, the performers and the stage hands.

It follows, as a matter of course, that both the audience and the people on the stage are much less in danger in a wellplanned, well-constructed and properly equipped theatre, than in a defective, antiquated, highly combustible structure in which means for protection of life, means for quick egress, and appliances for quickly putting out a fire at its start are not provided, and where both life and property are exposed to undue risks.

Then again, in all buildings devoted to amusement, recreation, instruction, or worship, in which a large number of people congregate, it is very often not so much a question of danger from fire, as it is of danger from a panic. Even where there is no real danger, a panic often ensues. The lives of the theatre-goers, of the actors and stage employes are imperilled, not only by the possibility of beirg burned to death, but they are to a much greater degree, exposed to the direct effects of shock or fright, or to bodily injuries resulting from a rush, by falling or being trampled upon, or being crushed, and finally, there is the danger of becoming asphyxiated by the thick smoke and the fire gases or being overcome by the heat of a conflagration. A theatre building may be endangered by fire from without as well as from within, and in both cases, if the fire breaks out during a performance, the chief danger to the public arises from a sudden panic.

It obviously follows, first, that theatres must be planned, constructed, equipped and managed as not only to prevent fires, but also to prevent a panic ; second, that there should be provided in every theatre building, not only means for the fire extinguishment, but also for protection in case of an outbreak of fire against the flames, the smoke and the deadly gases of combustion, the smoke constituting the greatest danger, as more people are suffocated than burned to death in a theatre fire ; and third, and most important of all, that to ~ guard against a threatening panic, crush or stampede, there should be ample means for personal safety and rapid egress.

The safety of the spectators and of the stage people is always of primary importance, and the safety of the building as regards its tire-resisting structural features is only second in order, except in so far as it naturally adds to the protection of the persons i» the theatre. In other words, so far as the safety of human life is concerned, a combustible theatre may sometimes be less objectionable, if ample means of protection and safety-appliances are provided, and if the arrangement of stairs and exits are such as to permit the quick emptying of the theatre, in from two to three minutes, than a so-called fireproof theatre with insufficient safety appliances and lacking suitable means of egress.

I he prevention of fire in theatres is accomplished by proper location, planning, construction, interior arrangement and equipment, by proper management and by periodical inspections. But we should not forget that filling all the requirements combined alone provides perfect safety. For instance, a free site alone does not preclude theatre disasters. The Paris Opera Comique stood on an open square, the Exeter Theatre had three fronts on streets, the Opera House at Nice and the Vienna Ring Theatre practically stood detached, but they lacked sufficient and proper exits; the stairs were not lighted, and in some cases the doors opened inward. Then again, fireproof building construction alone does not prevent theatre panics if the stairs are narrow, if the passages are dark, if the smoke from a stage fire drawn through a wire curtain into the auditorium by the suction of the ventilator over the auditorium gasalier. Again, it is not sufficient to build a fireproof proscenium wall to completely separate the stage from the auditorium, but the large opening in the proscenium wall must be provided with an efficient fire curtain and other openings with self-closing fire doors to keep out the flames and smoke, at least long enough for the audience to make their escape. Finally, the most elaborate system and complicated mechanism of standpipes, sprinklers, iron curtain, stage ventilator, etc., fail to protect a theatre audience if the exits are inadequate and if the building cannot be completely emptied in a very few minutes. What is needed, therefore, is the combination of all known elements of safety.

The prevention of panic in a theatre requires first, the avoidance of all usual causes of fire,and second the elimination of defects in construction and plan, such as narrow and dark passages, winding staircases, crowded seats, insufficient number of aisles and exits, doors opening inward, and a badly hemmed-in site. The audience must know that it will be able to leave the building quickly and safely in case of a false alarm, or a panic, caused by a fire alarm in the neighborhood, or by the sudden accidental extinguishment of the lights in the theatre, or by the falling of a part of the scenery or decorations, or from any other disturbance of the performance.

The means of protection in case of fire include the use of the fire-proof curtain to cut off the audience from the sight of the fire and from the smoke and fire gases, the use of the stage-roof ventilator, to remove quickly the smoke incident to a stage fire, and means for fighting the fire, such as a sufficient fire and water service, ample fire-appliances, etc.

The means of safety in the event of a panic are: for the audience, plenty of plainly marked exits, wide aisles without steps or obstructions, well lighted and wide corriders and staircases, plenty of wide stairs with strong hand rails on both sides, suitable fire escapes, wide doors opening outward and preventing a jam; and for the theatre employees and actors, isolated dressing-rooms, fire-proof stairs, a sufficient number of separate and direct exits from the stage to out doors, and safe means of retreat trom the fly galleries and the riggingloft.

From whatever point-of-view we consider the subject, whether we are concerned with the safety of the building and its usually valuable and expensive contents, or with the safety of the theatre audience and the stage people; whether we wish to prevent a panic or a conflagration, the following are the principal requirements of a modern theatre building, and the principal safeguards, which for absolute security must be insisted upon.—American Architect.

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