Studies have shown that decision making during an acute emergency in a place of public assembly will generally cause a high level of anxiety, severe stress, and can sometimes cause panic. The reason for having guests informed prior to a performance of all emergency exits is that it will allow the proper time to plan and develop a fast and safe exiting route for themselves and their families.
Today there are sound alerts such as fire alarms, smoke detectors and audio sound directions for evacuation upon discovery of a hazardous incident. When these are activated, there is only a very short time to attempt to find a safe path of egress. The result is suddenly having a crowd exiting all at once and many will get trampled or crushed in the exiting process usually through the front entrance.
In 2003, after the “Station Nightclub Fire” in West Warwick, R.I., the state revised their R.I. State Fire Code. One of many new regulations is that mandatory audio announcements of the emergency exits are to be made at all events in places of public assembly. The accepted practice is that a single announcement at the beginning of a theater performance or banquet hall (weddings etc.) was sufficient as guests were usually present and captive for the entire event. In the case of nightclub style entertainment, multiple announcements are required between each act or set as guests are very fluid and may leave or arrive throughout the daytime or evening performances. Therefore, all must be prior informed. Even after 10 years, many venues in R.I. do not comply.
In 2004, a study was conducted by the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) of the Station nightclub fire. They concluded that interior lights were turned up, a loud audio fire alarm was activated, and strobe lighting was automatically turned on. With these warnings, all the patrons were aware that a serious incident, a fire, was now enveloping the club. In a very short time, smoke was concealing the locations of the emergency exits known to only a few at the club. Most patrons had only a very short time to make a choice for a safe path to exit. They had no prior knowledge of the locations of these emergency exits and with the visibility very poor, many attempted to return to the main entrance with devastating results.
The sound reason for making owners, management and staff make the required audio announcements is that when they comply, they will have already prepared their premise for safe exiting. They will certainly ensure their guests that in their daily housekeeping chores that they will provide unobstructed safe paths of egress to secondary emergency exit doors that open from the inside and swing to the outside. This regulation is passive, low-tech and cost effective for all to comply. An extra benefit is that there would be fewer victims, if any, to extract by the first responders in their search and rescue phase.
Fire is not the only hazardous incident that requires us to formulate a smart response to safely evacuate a public building. A few others are: a total electric blackout in the evening, carbon monoxide release, smoke from a prank incident, planned terrorist attack, or gunfire from a deviant behavioral perpetrator.
Life-safety in emergency exiting is a three-way partnership: First with the deputy state fire marshal in inspection and enforcement; second with owners, management and staff of entertainment venues in ensuring that the paths of egress are clear and exits doors are operable; and third, that patrons upon entering should observe the total layout of the venue to determine a safe path to an emergency exit. Also, if it is a state law, they should listen to the audio announcements of the locations of the secondary exit doors.
Recently in the deadly “Kiss” nightclub fire in Santa Marie, Brazil, where over 230 young patrons lost their lives, officials confirmed that there may not have been operable secondary emergency exit doors. Many were trampled to death at the front entrance similar to the Station fire. In hindsight, Brazil should look to the Rhode Island fire codes, the best in the nation, to improve their fire codes and give their guests a higher level of life-safety in all their entertainment venues.
This audio regulation should be embraced in all places of large public assembly worldwide, even if no regulation applies. Entertainment venues should offer their guests this means to ensure a safe exiting from a hazardous incident. Casinos and their large performance theaters, medical facilities, shopping malls, large retail stores, business offices and cruise ships in their large performance theaters should all join to create a safer means for emergency exiting for all public gatherings.
A Warwick resident, Bob Sweeney is president of RES Associates, a consulting company for the construction industry.