Are escape rooms safe?
Following the tragic deaths of five teenagers in an ‘escape room’ fire in Poland at the weekend, SHP investigates what the UK escape room industry is doing to keep players safe.
Five girls were killed in the Polish city of Koszalin on Friday evening when a fire, thought to be caused by leaking gas cylinders, broke out in an adjacent waiting room, spreading toxic fumes into the room where they were trapped.
Reports suggest that the fire blocked the route of the employee who was responsible for evacuating the rooms, meaning they could not get to the occupants to free them. The room the teenagers were in did not have an emergency exit.
A Police spokesperson said the girls’ bodies were found after firefighters put out the blaze, but that they were not directly hit by it. The cause of death is currently thought to be asphyxiation.
Local firefighters were said to have required specialised equipment in order to gain access to the room.
The tragedy has prompted Polish authorities to close 13 escape room venues across country and order a full review of more than 1,000 venues, to ensure they meet safety standards before, a decision is made whether new regulations are required.
The owner of the facility where the incident happened has been charged with “creating the danger of a fire in the escape room and with unintentionally causing the death of people in a fire”.
The District Prosecutor added that the owner had also neglected to ensure the that the room had escape routes. He has denied any negligence or wrongdoing, according to his lawyers.
What are escape rooms?
Thought to have originated from the mobile app ‘Room’, voted Game of the Year in the App Store in 2012, escape rooms are a physical and mental adventure playground where players move from one ‘locked’ room to another by solving a series of clues.
Often franchised, fairly cheap to build and set up, the escape room industry is rapidly growing across the globe.
As of September 2017, there were around 8,000 worldwide and there are now thought to be well over 1,000 in the UK alone, a huge rise from 2013 when there were just seven.
Are escape rooms safe?
SHP spoke to a number of UK escape rooms, while some opted not to comment the others maintained that they have stringent safety procedures in place. The message was that, although the aim was to escape the room, in the UK it is illegal to lock a person inside a room and in most cases occupants are not physically ‘locked’ in and can exit whenever they want.
Daisy Jones, Assistant Producer at Clue Adventures, said the term ‘escape’ is often quite misleading and that “’escape room games‘ is just the name that these type of challenge games have ended up with.
“Most escape room games have storylines that do not involve ‘escaping’ and so the need to physically ‘lock’ customers within a room is not always necessary.”
Stefan Vargolici, General Manager at Breakin’ Escape Rooms, said that even when doors are ‘locked’: “All of our game rooms are equipped with an electromagnet lock, so in case of an emergency all doors open automatically to allow participants out of the rooms.”
This was backed up by Heather Chandler, Co-Founder at Whole Brain Escape Rooms, who said: “Guests can walk out of the room (and the building) at any time and all of the exits are set up so that players can just make one movement to open the door and get out.”
Although no specific regulations or legislation is in place in the UK to govern these types of venues, largely due to the vast variety of styles, sites should all adhere to the Health and Safety at Work Act.
A spokesperson for the HSE said: “Under the Health and Safety (Enforcing Authority) Regulations 1998, the local authority is generally the enforcing authority for leisure activities.
“It is only where the local authority owns, occupies or controls activities or equipment – such as local authority swimming pools or leisure centres – that the enforcing authority is HSE.
“This would mean that escape rooms would be a local authority matter.”
Melvin Sandell, Senior Consultant and Expert Witness at Finch Consulting Ltd, who is formerly the HSE’s Operational Lead for Fairground and Theme Park Safety, told SHP that there is still the duty under criminal and common UK law to protect people as much as possible.
He said that: “Operators must be able to see what is going on within the rooms at all times and that adequately trained staff should be on site to assist in case of an emergency.”
Daisy Jones added: “All players at Clue Adventures are monitored the whole time by CCTV and covert microphones and our staff are trained in emergency procedures and evacuation.”
At Whole Brain Escape Rooms, Heather Chandler said: “A game co-ordinator will be observing the players at all times during play and there will be one co-ordinator per room. While they are there to provide hints and support for the players, their top priority is a safe experience.”
Escape room fire safety
Breakin’ Escape Rooms had numerous visits when setting up the business from both from the local Fire Safety Department as well as Building Regulations inspectors from the local council, who provided advice.
“As such,” Stefan Vargolici said, “we have an extremely advanced fire alarm system which covers our entire building and each room. The system was implemented and is maintained by ADT, one of the largest providers on the market. We test it regularly and clean the sensors on a monthly basis.
“We have an emergency lighting system that covers each of our rooms as well as the common spaces, which is tested regularly, and which activates in case of an emergency, lighting the way out for clients.
“There are also two main emergency fire exits from the building which can be rapidly accessed from any of our rooms or common spaces, as well as the main exit.
“Fire extinguishers are in place next to all of the rooms, both foam and carbon dioxide ones, and we have 60 minute fire doors separating each section of the building, to prevent the spread of fire.”
He added that: “All game rooms are equipped with large panic buttons next to the doors, which when pressed release the door instantly, allowing the participants to leave the rooms whenever needed and we have a panel in our control room which allows us to open all the doors in the building if needed.”