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Keven Moore: Escape Rooms are a popular, trendy form of entertainment — but are they dangerous?

Around the world, Escape Rooms are a booming form of entertainment that has swept this country in the last few years.

An Escape Room, also known as an “escape game,” is a live‐action team‐based game where players are confined inside a space and must cooperatively discover clues, solve puzzles, and accomplish tasks in one or more rooms in order to progress and accomplish a specific goal of escaping in a limited amount of time, which is usually within one hour.

The original concept of Escape Games comes from video games called ‘Escape Rooms’ or ‘Escape Games.’ Players of those games had to solve mysteries by interacting with characters around them to escape from the room and move onto the next level. The first Escape Game video game, Crimson Room, was created in 2004 by Toshimitsu Takagi. This coined the term Takagim used to refer to this kind of game.

The Japanese company SCRAP first transformed the concept in 2007 into a Live Escape Room. Its founder, Takao Kato, wanted players to be immersed in the game. A player would physically play in a themed room and solve mysteries to escape within the allotted time. Escape Games started to pop up in the rest of Asia before arriving in Europe and then the U.S. The very first escape room opened up in 2012, in San Francisco.

Escape Room pictures from Wikimedia

According to a July 2018 article in www.roomescapeartist.com, there were more than 2,300 Escape Room facilities in the United States and an estimated 10,000 escape rooms worldwide according to www.economist.com. In Kentucky, I was able to locate a total of 19 different escape rooms reaching into just about every corner of the state.

The craze has taken on many forms and some are now built into trailers or buses. This mobile escape room market also continues to grow with 24 mobile operations located across 13 states.

But like any good risk management/safety professional, my natural instincts and training have made me ask, just how safe are these escape rooms? 

From my prior experience when you see the terms “Locked In,” “Trapped” and “Confined” in a headline, the story usually never ends well and we oftentimes hear about people losing their lives because their emergency egress was impeded. But in this case, it is a part of the entertainment experience which makes these venues so appealing and in some times nerve-wracking. 

The first recorded fatality in an Escape Room occurred this past January in Poland, where five teenage girls died inside from carbon monoxide asphyxiation caused by smoke from a fire that broke out in an adjacent room. The fire was sparked by gas near a heating system boiler, and the tragedy occurred because of the lack of proper evacuation routes. When the girls tried to escape, they found that the doors to their room had been locked and their only way out was to win the game.

Immediately after these deaths, the Interior Minister of Poland ordered all the Escape Rooms in his country be inspected, and 433 of the 504 reviewed violated safety regulations. There were 1,874 violations related to fire safety, with almost half of them related to deficiencies in evacuation procedures.

Because of their potential risks and growing popularity — the topic of Escape Rooms has attracted the attention of NFPA’s Technical Committee on Assembly Occupancies in 2018. The NFPA is looking to update widely used codes and standards like NFPA 101® Life Safety Code® to reflect the industry’s emergence. New language pertaining to Escape Rooms has been proposed for the 2021 edition of the code.

In the U.S. Escape Rooms must receive permits to open their doors and are subject to code enforcement and fire department inspections. From my research, most Escape Room attractions in the U.S. are generally regarded as safe by those who design, own, operate, and even regulate them. But that doesn’t mean they’re all code compliant, and with more opening up every month, authorities with jurisdiction over these states and communities need to be vigilant about Escape Room safety to ensure that the owners are not cutting any safety corners.

The main issue that still resonates with some safety professionals is the door locking system being used in these Escape Rooms. NFPA 101, requires the release mechanism of a door to be on the door hardware itself, not activated by a button positioned off to the side. If the lights go out and smoke enters the room, most people will drop to the floor and will crawl to the door and feel for the door hardware. If there is a magnetic locking system (button) off to the side, guests may not be able to find it, especially if they are not familiar with the environment. NFPA 101 has allowed certain exceptions to this rule for certain health care facilities such as psychiatric wards and nurseries, or in jails and prisons, but should they be made for the escape room industry?

When taking this challenge, you can escape the room one of two ways: beat the game or ask to leave. The catch is that if anyone opened the door to leave, the game is over — which is a small price to pay for safety, in my opinion.

Just like any other public venue or business, guests need to be protected from themselves and treated like suicidal toddlers. Safety has to be a priority to protect people from themselves.

The key to keeping everyone safe is for the Escape Room owners and operators to involve the building inspectors and local and state fire marshals during the construction and design phase when being built. Not only should Escape Rooms review all the safety rules and egress procedures with every participant before beginning the challenge, but they should also develop and train their staff on their emergency action plan. Once inside, all guests need to be monitored at all times through the use of security cameras or windows. Rooms should be equipped with emergency lighting, fire extinguishers, smoke detectors and if possible fire sprinklers.  

The problem is that people become more aggressive when they find themselves locked in a room, and that can lead to the destruction of the props, property and can cause injury to others.
When visiting an escape room you need to follow these simple rules to remain safe:
Listen to the Rules – Before beginning an escape room the attendant will review all the safety rules so make sure that you are paying attention.

Know How To Escape – after the safety rules have been reviewed, if you still have any questions about how to leave, ask. 

Remain Sober – I know it’s tempting when out with friends and family to consume alcohol and go find something fun to do, but for your safety please do not play if you are intoxicated or are under the influence of drugs.

Leave Props Alone – Props are usually not part of the game and are there to add to the visual effects. If something is glued or bolted down, then leave it alone.

Dress Accordingly For The Challenge – Wear loose fitted clothing, with rubber-soled shoes.

Don’t Destroy The Room – Remember that if you are destroying something or breaking something, the game was not designed for that and you may have to pay for it.

Leave Tools At Home – Leave your Swiss army knife in your pocket and remember if the game required tools, they would have provided them to you. 

Watch Out For Sharp Objects – Sharp objects aren’t usually found in Escape Rooms, but in the cases where there is a letter opener or a Swiss army knife, use it with caution. If there is broken or damaged equipment in the room, be careful of any sharp edges.

Be Wary Of Electrical Sockets – Use common sense and don’t put your fingers or other objects in electrical sockets.

Report Hazards – If you notice a safety hazard, report it to an employee so that it can get fixed before somebody else gets hurt.

Do Not Climb On Any Props or Furnishings – Everything you need will be within arm’s reach.

Play Like You Are Being Watched – remember almost all Escape Rooms have attendants who are watching you usually with security cameras. So behave as if your mother is watching you.

You Should Never Be Restrained – You should never be handcuffed, tied-up or blindfolded while playing an escape game. In the event of an emergency, you must be able to move to the nearest exit without restraint and well oriented in the event of an emergency. 

Notify Your Local Fire Marshal – If you discover an escape room that is not living up to the safety expectations, especially when it comes to emergency egress, then notify the local or state fire marshal.

Avoid Escape Rooms When Traveling Outside of the US
– When traveling abroad, you may want to avoid visiting an Escape Room, especially in a country that doesn’t have a very good life safety history.

Be Safe My Friends

Keven Moore works in risk management services. He has a bachelor’s degree from the University of Kentucky, a master’s from Eastern Kentucky University and 25-plus years of experience in the safety and insurance profession. He is also an expert witness. He lives in Lexington with his family and works out of both Lexington and Northern Kentucky. Keven can be reached at kmoore@roeding.com.

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