To Prevent and Extinguish Fires in Theatres.*
The practical view of the question of fires in theatres I have always considered to be, “How to render existing structures safe;” and I have endeavored to keep to this side of the question, apart from the theoretical one of how to construct, regardless of cost, a building wherein, by the use of every known modern improvement and appliance, the maximum amount of security could be attained. Before the doors of a theatre are permitted to be opened to the public, I should consider the structural questions as at an end. That is to say, that no theatre or public building should be licensed for use until the structure complies with what may be taken as the accepted conditions of safety. The main leading point is the exits. The time within which an audience should be able to get clear of a building may be estimated at two minutes. Beyond this time it may be taken that human life would be in jeopardy. In even what may be called fireproof theatres, there is within the walls a sufficient quantity of combustible materials, scenery, etc., which on ignition would create sufficient smoke to imperil life after the lapse of a period exceeding two minutes. Consequently, unless the building can be cleared before the smoke gets sufficiently dense, for all practical purposes it is a deathtrap.
The seats in the auditorium should be fixed, every seat allowing at least two and a half square feet of room for the occupant, and be arranged as, while tending to prevent a “block,” to allow a free passage to the exit door. All staircases should be constiuctcd with a hand-rail on each side; and where any turn of a passage may lead anyone to doubt the direct way out, the word “exit,” with a hand pointing in that direction, should appear prominently. All exit doors should be distinctly labeled “exit,” and every such door should be opened nightly for egress. A plan of the theatre, with exits conspicuously marked, should be printed on every programme. All exit gangways should be clear of obstruction, and, where possible, carpet curtains should take the place of doors of heavy construction. Every separate part of the building, such as pit, dress circle, gallery, etc., should have a separate and direct exit, no other exit leading into it at any junction whatever.
Excepting the case of private boxes, there should be no movable seats, capable of being overturned, in any part of the theatre. Cloak-rooms, refreshment-rooms and other public conveniences should be situated at the farthest point from the exit doors, thus leaving the exits clear of unnecessary traffic. Special attention should be directed to such parts of the house as are highest from the basement.
All gas pipes, etc., should be of iron, no other kind of metal piping being used. If the lighting power be by gas, it should be supplied from separate meters and mains—one for the auditorium, the other for the stage; while, whether gas or electricity be used, supplemental means, such as oil lamps, should provide against the contingency of total darkness. When the house is supplied with the electric light, the greatest possible attention should be paid to perfect insulation, and the wires placed apart even then, and, if possible, embedded in the plaster and not in connection with wood.
* Abstract of a paper read before the International Congress of Fire Brigades at Paris by Arthur W. C. Shean.
The stage should be divided from the auditorium by a thick solid brick proscenium wall, which should go between the orchestra and mezzanine, and pass above the roof. The only opening, besides the stage front, should be a pass door from the stage to the auditorium. That part of the house generally used by the orchestra, if connected direct with the outside of the building by a subway, would be the most convenient for placing hydrants, as the appliances, while being used, would be free from the turmoil of a crowd and handy for use by the servants of the theatre, whose knowledge of a clear subway to the street would enable the appliances being worked for as long a time as possible, in the direction of any part of the house. Supplementary aid and assistance could also, by means of the subway, gain easy access from outside the building. In new theatres cast-iron and concrete should be used wherever possible.
The above are the main and principal conditions absolutely necessary for public safety. The duty of an officer on taking charge of a theatre is to report to the management such structural defects as he may observe, but which I hold should not exist in a licensed building. Assuming, therefore, the building is structurally in accordance with acknowledged requirements, the first duty of the officer taking charge will be to draw a code of rules and regulations for safety from accident by fire. A correct appreciation of the value of the means at disposal for fire extinction will enable him to gauge the maximum risk in case of accident; and to guard against the possibility of a hold being attained by fire, adequate precautions must be taken. The officer here alluded to I presume to be an inspecting officer, for anyone experienced in theatres will know that to maintain a standard of efficiency necessary to insure public safety, it is essential to supervise and continually exercise a system of check against possible laxity on the part of the ordinary firemen in charge. Long immunity from accident breeds a feeling of security that fosters carelessness, to which, in almost every instance, disastrous results can be traced.
Rules and regulations for fire prevention will vary in different buildings according to given conditions. The greatest danger, both by liability of accident from carelessness and from natural causes, is the stage, which should always be in charge of an experienced fireman, acquainted with all the applicable means of fire extinction. The fireman’s duty should be to keep a careful watch over the gas arrangements, and superintend the lighting up and maintenance of all lights in use on the stage generally.
The hydrants or appliances for fire extinction should be kept clear of encumbrance, allowing free access at all times. Wet blankets should be kept ready for use, and in convenient positions. Fire buckets should be kept full of water, and small hand extinguishing appliances should be tested every time prior to the commencement of a performance.
Men in the “flies” should he entrusted with buckets of water and hook-knives at the end of sticks of sufficient length to reach any part of the scenery, to cut away portions which might ignite.
Fire-places and stoves should be guarded with fire screens, and gas burners by wire netting and protection-plates. Wax and any kind of matches that ignite otherwise than on the box only should not be used in a theatre, and smoking should be strictly prohibited on any part of the stage. No windows should communicate directly with the stage, and all doors opening directly on to the stage should be in charge of an attendant, whose duty it should be to keep them closed, and so prevent strong draught. Mediums and inflammable materials of light texture, such as curtains, should be rendered noncombustible by the application of chemical solutions.
The firemen should have free access to any part of the stage or building. At the close of every performance, and of the theatre, the firemen in charge should visit every part of the building. A signal should be known by all the servants of the theatre, to convey to them the presence of fire in any part of the building without giving the alarm to the public. A limited quantity of scenery only should be kept on the stage. Scene painting, carpenters’ work and repairs of all kinds should be done outside the theatre whenever possible. Firemen in charge of a theatre should be liable to the uncertain visit of a superior officer, and without notice an alarm should occasionally be given, and every appliance prepared for use. It is also advisable for the staff of firemen in a particular city to be liable to occasional change from one theatre to another, working alternately at different theatres before being placed in charge at any given place. The pressure of water when by ordinary supply it is of insufficient force to reach the highest part of the building inside should be made to do so by artificial means, and registers in all parts of the building should record the pressure of water. It is advisable when possible that the water source for fire extinction be entirely separate from the ordinary domestic supply, and for the stage, copper vessels containing about 100 gallons of water, artificially placed under high pressure, are of value. It is most desirable that lights as much as possible should be fixed and powerfully reflected, and provision must be made for careful, vigilant and ceaseless watching. Such accessories as iron curtains are of value only when used continually, and the public well accustomed to them.
The means to induce or compel the adoption of adequate precautions to provide for the safety of the public in England has engaged the attention both of Parliament and local bodies. Perhaps the most effective way would be to render the insurance of public buildings such as theatres and music halls illegal, or the money irrecoverable by law when the property is covered by premiums to indemnify loss by fire. At present proprietors and managers of places of public entertainment are compelled to pay very heavy premiums to indemnify themselves by insurance, and they regard the further expenditure of money in fire appliances, etc., as a burden of irksome weight. Their loss being covered in the event of accidents, the safety of the public does not weigh upon them with the force it would if fire meant ruin. Once place theatre proprietors, etc., in the position that the loss of their building by fire would mean ruin to them, and the security of the public would be guaranteed. As it is, only such appliances as are insisted on by the authorities that exist for the time being are provided, and it is with a feeling of annoyance that theatrical managers regard action in the public interest. The large sum of money they would save by non-insurance would quickly reimburse the necessary outlay for appliances that would reduce any serious risk of fire to a minimum, and, in tendering this advice, I deem both the public and theatrical managers would make a good bargain by its adoption.