Last year, following the Ghost Ship Fire in Oakland, people from America's music community began questioning how they could make their events safer. The costs required to retrofit spaces to meet legal fire and public assembly codes can seem daunting, even impossible—indeed, as we have been documenting with our Music Venue Closure Tracker, spaces around the country have been shut down by police and fire marshals in recent months. Still, material resources don't have to stand in the way of safety. There a multitude of steps that venues, promoters, and attendees can take to fire-proof venues and establish safety procedures in the event of an emergency. These practices will save lives, and are easy to put in place even on shoe-string budgets.
S. Surface is an architect based in Seattle with expertise in harm reduction for sub-legal venues. After the Ghost Ship fire happened, they set up an open source document collecting tips for safety at legal and sub-legal spaces. Now, we asked them to narrow that document down to the most essential tips for promoters, venue owners, and event attendees. Read on to make sure you're doing everything you can to keep yourself and others safe.
1. Make sure your guests have a clear way to get out fast if there's an emergency
Clutter in a space is dangerous. "Piles cause fires and obstruction," Surface notes. "So clear paths to exits. Mark and label building circulation with reflective tape or paint on the floor."
If there's an emergency, it's crucial that attendees be able to get out quickly. Thus it's imperative that you "clearly mark all exit doors and portals that can be used for emergency exits including non-barred windows and fire escapes" with "glow in the dark, reflective, or battery-powered LED-lit signage."
When people are leaving a venue in a hurry, doors can prevent a dangerous obstacle—"make sure doors are unlocked and swing away from you as you move along the exit path," says Surface. "Re-hang the hinges as necessary. Make sure doors swing freely and don't stick."
Accessibility is also crucial. "Whenever possible, design your navigation so it's possible to get through the space while using a wheelchair," Surface says.
2. Fire-proof your space
In the wake of Ghost Ship, it's crucial that venues take basic fire safety precautions. Simple and cheap remedies can save lives. "Install functional smoke and carbon monoxide detectors, 30 feet apart in common areas, one in each enclosed room," instructs Surface. "Check the detectors' manuals, but if you don't have them then test the batteries at least every 6 months Obtain, install, and clearly label non-expired fire extinguishers 75 feet apart in common areas." And remember to maintain them, because "they do not last forever."
Surface adds several more fire safety no-brainers: "Do not allow large installations or dividers of fabric, paper, flammable wood." When you have shows, "announce the location of exits and fire extinguishers before and during each event." Smoking indoors can be extremely dangerous, so "provide a designated outdoor smoking area, free of clutter and flammables, with fire-safe disposal containers" for your guests. And, of course, "don't allow fires. No incense, candles, pyrotechnics displays, fire spinning, and so on."
3. Keep your electrical wiring safe
Electrical fires pose a particular danger to live music venues because of how much gear is often in use. "Make sure your electrical wiring is properly grounded and attached to breakers, so if the system overloads it shuts off in lieu of exploding," warns Surface. "If you regularly lose power during events, first be thankful that the breakers are working as they should, but also acknowledge that your system is not adequate to handle your needs." Until your system can handle a heavy load, "modify what you book there."
Make sure that "all electrical panels, water and gas valves, meters, and other infrastructure" have a "minimum three feet of space at their front and sides at all times," adds Surface. A good rule of thumb: "don't block a box."
Basic electrical maintenance can go a long way in a venue. "Figure out which outlets are on which circuits, and the maximum current for every circuit," says Surface. "Label the circuits on your breaker box. This makes it easy to kill the power to something without the lights going out. Plug power-intensive items directly into the wall outlet."
4. Prioritize accessibility
So you're throwing an event—what can you do to make sure that your guests feel welcome and safe? Surface argues that you should always "prioritize accessibility and disability justice in all updates and maintenance of your space," adding, "consider how people with disabilities, elders, children, intoxicated people, and others with challenges will navigate the space. Everyone must be able to get out, so make decisions that support the most vulnerable inhabitants."
An easy way to make sure you're on the right track is to "hire disabled people to accessibility-audit your venue."
Surface adds several basic tips safety tips, including training yourself in First Aid and keeping a kit available with "Naloxone for overdoses." Make sure not to "exceed maximum occupancy restrictions for your venue," and "staff the entrances/exits to make sure it doesn't get too full."
Keep everyone working your event prepared—"Create and review emergency procedures and practice them with residents, staff, and volunteers." It should also be your "standard practice to communicate accessibility (and inaccessibility) information on event promotions, especially online where unlimited text is allowed." It's the least you can do to make your event welcoming.
5. What you can do as an attendee to keep yourself and others safe at an event
So you're going to an event—there are some straightforward steps you can take to prepare, even in sublegal DIY spaces. "Take note of a venue's exit paths and fire extinguishers, and plan your exit strategy," says Surface, adding, "Be aware of others who may have difficulty staying safe: people with disabilities, children, elders, people who are intoxicated."
If you see something that troubles you, raise your voice—"We have begun to establish a culture where it is considered helpful and welcome to demand safer spaces that are free of behavioral threats, such as sexual harassment and assault, homophobia, transphobia, racism, ableism, fatphobia, ageism, classism, and bigotry in all its forms," points out Surface. "We must also include literal building and life safety in our demands to keep our spaces safe."
It's not just for your own good. "If you know something is dangerous, demand change so the venue can become a safer space for your whole community," notes Surface."
6. Get educated in event safety
Following these tips will make you and your parties safer, but there's a lot more to learn. Surface reccomends several in-depth resources, including Safer Spaces. "If you are a DIY Venue in need of professional support or you are a professional who wishes to offer pro bono or affordable expertise to DIY Venues, take a look at this community-sourced live document overseen by Melissa J. Frost," they said. For disability activism, check out Is This Venue Accessible?, "a resource by Shawn Gray, singer of the band Birth Defects and a disability justice activist living with Cerebral Palsy."
Those with or without a design background can find "essential info" in The Architect's Studio Companion: Rules of Thumb for Preliminary Design, 5th Edition, though Surface notes it "may be inaccessible to some due to cost and extensiveness."
Last but not least, BUILDING: A DIY Guide to Creating Spaces, Hosting Events and Fostering Radical Communities and A Guide to Fire Safety in Industrial Spaces expand in depth on the tips above.