Players with fire: how to ensure fire safety in theatres

Fire and Safety Centre explores the rules around fire safety in theatres and performance venues. Venue operators must be familiar with the fire extinguisher requirements and ensure that they have the necessary equipment safely to hand.

Comedy is supposed to be about the unexpected. It’s the twist in the tale that makes you laugh when the punchline is delivered – but the laugh was on a number of Edinburgh Fringe Festival comedians who found themselves having to start their new acts all over again when the British people made their material useless by saying ‘no’ to Europe.

It wasn’t that there was anything wrong with it, but its foundation had crumbled. Britain had gone for Brexit, and overnight the material based on staying in the EU became as useful as a chocolate fire extinguisher.

It’s readiness for just that kind of unpredictable eventuality that venue operators need to keep a sharp focus on fire safety in theatres and performance venues. It’s tougher in Edinburgh at Fringe time every August than it might be for round-the-year entertainment venues. There are far more shows, staged in all sorts of unusual venues, and people in their tens of thousands swelling the city’s population.

Fire safety rules in Scotland

Anyone organising a show at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival has a lot to think about. It’s all covered in 36 pages of tightly-packed small print from the Edinburgh Fringe Festival Society and these pages cover Scotland’s fire and safety rules.

They aren’t the same as those in England and Wales. Scotland is covered by the Fire (Scotland) Act 2005 and the Fire Safety (Scotland) Regulations 2006.

Part 3 of the first legislation and the whole of the latter place responsibility for fire safety measures on the employer in the premises. That’s the person organising the show, who has a responsibility in law to safeguard his or her employees – the actors and the stage crew against the risk of fire. The list has a lot of common sense about it, and asks you to:

• assess the fire risks in the workplace
• check that fire can be detected in a reasonable time, and that people can be warned
• check that people in the building know what to do if there is a fire
• check that people who may be in the building can get out safely
• provide reasonable fire-fighting equipment, including fire extinguishers and fire blankets, for example
• check and maintain the fire safety equipment in the point above
• provide a written fire risk assessment as part of the Entertainment Licence application.


Fire risk assessments are vital

Writing a fire risk assessment urges the show organiser to consider the risks from fire, how serious they are, and what must be done to mitigate them. This latter point includes staff training as a key thought. What’s more, without all this work being done, the show may not go on at all, because a written risk assessment is required as part of a Entertainment License application.

Furthermore, it’s not acceptable for one risk assessment for a venue; the assessment must relate to each individual show. The Scottish Fire and Rescue Service point out that maintaining a high level of fire safety in theatres may well require different action, training for new staff, and different fire prevention measures – for example, what materials are the sets constructed from, and are any naked flames or special effects involved.

In the best theatrical tradition, the show must go on, and it therefore falls to the organiser to perform well in the background long before the curtain goes up to ensure that cast, crew and audience alike have a real awareness of fire safety in the workplace.

Finally… did you know this fire safety curtain fact?

The fire safety curtain in traditional theatres is there to protect the audience in the event of a backstage or onstage fire – but it’s not down throughout the performance, appearing perhaps only at the beginning and end, or in the interval. The risk doesn’t necessarily change, but the curtain comes up and down at least once in every performance because fire regulations insist it must, to prove it is working and ready for action should a real need arise.

For further information, or guidance on any fire safety matter please get in touch with us.