Theatre Fire Catastrophes, and Their Prevention.
9. Much care should be bestowed upon the heating apparatus for a theatre, for in not a few instances has it been the cause of a fire. A number of fires as sources of heat being out of the question, on account of difficulties in attending to them, and also because they increase the fire danger, the choice lies between a warm-air furnace, a steam and a hot water boiler. Furnaces can only be used for theatres of small size, and in the majority of cases heating is done by steam. The usual precautions should be observed, and the steam boiler placed in a fire-proof vault, preferably outside of the theatre proper. It may with advantage be combined with the electric light plant.
10. Efficient lightning rod protection add to the safety of a theatre building.and in European theatres its installation is generally included in the equipment of the building.
11. It is quite important to have on hand,‘in every theatre, for cases of emergency, a few life-saving appliances, such as rope escapes, a jumping net and a cloth chute to aid in saving persons in case their retreat from the upper floors should be too suddenly cutoff by fire or smoke.
ia. Finally, it will be a great.help in preventing theatre fires, if a fire watch is kept in the building day and night, reinforced during the hours of the performance by detachments from the city fire department. Nothing will increase more the security of a theatre than frequent inspections, about which I shall say something hereafter. There should be a telegraph connection with the nearest fire department station, and automatic firealarmsat many points in the building which should be frequently tested to make sure that they are in good working order. I here should also be speaking tubes, electric bells and telegraph alarms, to bring all parts of the building into communication with each other. And lastly, the theatre employees should undergo regular fire drills, so that in case of an emergency each employee will know what duty he has to perform.
13. Many of the safety appliances spoken of, can be arranged so as to work automatically. Such automatic appliances are good in their way, and some of them have proven in actual experience to be quite efficient. They should not however, be solely relied upon, and in general, it will be better not to trust to automatic appliances altogether. The automatic fire alarm system and the automatic sprinkler system may be approved, but the automatic sliding skylights, or the smoke ventilators over the stage roof and the automatic
fire curtain may fail to work properly just when needed. I am quite aware of the fact that others argue in favor of automatic appliances, claiming that one cannot rely in moments of danger upon the cool headedness of men, and that in a panic everyone will think of his own safety first and theatre employees will forget their duties.
But in my judgment it is infinitely better to put all such appliances in charge of a special, trusted “safety officer,” who may be a trusted fireman, whose sole duty in case of an outbreak of fire, should be to lower the fire curtain, to open the stage ventilators, to close the auditorium ventilating registers, to send the alarm to the theatre engineer who runs the fire pump and to the nearest fire engine station, to notify the audience promptly that they must disperse quietly, to see that the gas is not shutoff and that the auxiliary lights are kept burning, to see that aH doors leading to the stage are kept closed to prevent a draft and who snould order the water turned on at the fire hydrants, the monitor nozzles and the perforated pipe system, where such is installed in place of automatic sprinkler.
I have not, so far, made any distinction between old and new theatre buildings, for the lequirements for safety really apply to both alike, but of course are much more difficult to enforce in the case of the older structures. These are everywhere, as a rule, lamentably deficient and unsafe, and much good would result if they were frequently inspected by the fire department, and if alterations were made to increase the safety of audiences. The public as a rule, is not able to, and does not discriminate between safe and dangerous theatres. If the older theatres cannot be made safe, particularly as regards the exits, they should be closed up by the authorities. All theatre regulations should be compulsory, and the building, fire and police departments should have power to stringently enforce them. The law should clearly define the responsibility of architects and builders and of the theatre managers, in the matter of theatre safety. It is but reasonable to require of theatre managers that every known approved measure, tending to increase the safety of the public, be provided for. It is, likewise, justifiable to require builders to construct places for public amusement in such a secure manner that all damages to life and limb are averted.
THEATRE Inspections.—In the case of new theatre buildings, it does not suffice to have them well planned and well constructed. There should be after the opening, regular inspections to make sure that the laws are not violated after the new building has passed the final examination of the authorities. If subsequent alterations are not contemplated, they should likewise be made to conform to the building laws. The theatre license should be subject to revocation at any time for violation of the law. In the efficient periodical inspection and control of theatres by the authorities lies the greatest safeguard against fire catastrophes. Such inspections should be made muchoftener than once a year. In Vienna they occur four times a year, in Paris inspections are made every month by a committee of safety, consisting of a police commissioner, an official from the city fire department, and an architect. In London monthly inspections are required. These inspections should be made not only in day time, but likewise in the evenings during a performance, and all details should be excluded in the examination. Special expert surveys and tests of the gas pipes, electric conduits, fire alarms and the fire appliances should be made from time to time, and official reports made as to the results found. It is best to make inspections without any previous announcement. The results should be published,without fear or favor, in the daily newspapers. Nowhere are theatre inspections carried out with greater strictness than in Berlin. All theatres are regularly inspected and surveyed at odd times, by a committee from the fire brigade and the building department. Every two weeks the district fire-marshal examines the theatres, during the day and also at night. Finally, officers of the fire brigade make nightly inspections during the performances, and a watch of trained firemen is placed in every theatre during performances. All these precautions have a tendency to awaken public confidence and in case of a fire a panic is not so apt to occur. Indeed, there are several instances of well built and well managed theatres on record, where during a performance fire broke out which ultimately destroyed the building, but where the whole audience left the theatre quietly and in good order,and where no accident of any kind occurred.
For the safety of theatres it is essential that they be continuously watched. In the words of Dr. Gamier, the architect of the Paris Opera House, “the strict, minute and incessant watch and inspection of all parts of a theatre constitute the chief defence of theatres against fires.”
A century ago it was decided in France that firemen were the proper persons to do this. At first they were present on the stage merely during performances, subsequently it was decreed that firemen should be on watch in a theatre during the day and the night. If the employment of fire watches is left to the discretion of theatre managers, persons are sometimes engaged for this duty who are incompetent, or if competent, they are required to perform other duties besides, and being thus over-worked, fail to efficiently accomplish the object sought for. Fire watchmen should be well acquainted with the building, the whole theatre staff should be under their control and they should be vested with authority to interfere in case of violation of the theatre regulations. In the large Paris Opera House there are always twenty-five firemen on duty and during performances their number is doubled. In the Vienna Opera House there are ten men on duty. In the Berlin theatres strong fire watches, composed of the most experienced men of the fire brigade, are stationed in the building during performances, and a special police patrol is stationed in front of the house to keep the crowd in order, and to see that the exits are kept open and unobstructed. During all performances a detachment of firemen should be stationed on the stage, and should watch not only the lighting arrangements, the fireworks, the firing of firearms, but also have charge of the fire extinguishing and lifesaving appliances and see that they are kept in order and ready for use. At the close of each performance, an inspection of the whole theatre should be made by the fire watch, attention being paid in particular to the heating and lighting apparatus, to the decorations and scenery, and to the dressing rooms.
THEATRE MANAGEMENT. — Strict rules and regulations pertaining to the management of theatres should be arawn up by the authorities, and enforced by the fire, building, and police departments, which, as regards theatres, are correlated. Such rules of management relate to the proper storage of decorations, scenery, furniture and property, to the maintenance of general order, cleanliness and discipline; to the removal of rubbish, litter and ashes, to keeping the scenic decorations free from dust, keeping all corridors and exits unobstructed, and likewise to holding all fire stand pipes, hydrants, fire pails, and casks of water accessible and ready for use.
They also relate to the use of open fires and lights, the employment of special lightsand fire effects, the use of fireworks, of fire arms, the representation of actual fire scenes, the use of matches, the prohibition of smoking or lighting cigars in the auditorium, foyers or dressing looms and should only permit same where needed in the course of the play.