IF ALAN ROWE HAD HIS WAY, marquees across the United States would highlight this tagline: Coming soon to a theater near you - Safety takes the stage.
Safety efforts in the entertainment industry rarely receive star-worthy attention, but Rowe and others are trying to turn the tide, and NFPA is playing a supporting role.
Rowe is safety and training director for the International Alliance of Theatrical Stage Employees (IATSE) Local 728 in Hollywood, California. IATSE represents 120,000 behind-the-scenes workers at an array of entertainment venues, including theaters, motion picture and television locales, concert arenas, convention centers, and exhibition halls. His local union, representing 2,400 of IATSE’s members, is the only labor organization in the world solely dedicated to lighting and electricity for the motion picture and television industry.
IATSE is in the business of safety, and its efforts are expanding. In 2009, it began the IATSE Craft Advancement Program (ICAP) that disseminates information on safety training to members. Rowe, who was recently appointed ICAP’s chair, says the program links local unions unable to afford a full-time safety official with important training and guidelines on electrical safety and other topics.
More recently, deaths and injuries of industry workers have given rise to an increased scrutiny of safety issues and have led to new efforts involving NFPA. IATSE, for example, is expanding its presence on NFPA committees, bolstering the use NFPA 70®, National Electrical Code® (NEC®), and increasing outreach to authorities having jurisdiction (AHJs).
NFPA Journal talked with Rowe about placing safety in the limelight and how entertainment venues across the country could benefit from the Hollywood treatment.
How have the recent deaths and injuries at entertainment venues affected what you do?
What we’re doing is making sure everybody knows what the IATSE is and if there are any questions, they can come to us. We are providing safety information to our members and trying to influence the entire industry. We’re somewhat limited in what we can do outside of the union, but I feel we need to represent all workers in the entertainment industry because there’s nobody else doing it.
As someone in the business of safety, what do these incidents tell you?
It tells me that more people need access to training. There are companies like Freeman AV, a Chicago-based company that offers a range of audio and visual services across North America, that are stepping up and providing training, but at this point the safety training out there is not quite yet what it is here in Hollywood. Out here, we have the programs like the Safety Pass Program, which offers safety training to workers in the motion picture and TV industry. Some individual IATSE locals have done an excellent job in training their people as well, but it’s not uniform across the country.
How does NFPA fit into your efforts to evaluate and improve safety measures?
We’ve always taken our responsibility to the entertainment industry very seriously. We rely heavily on the codes NFPA has created and use them as a benchmark. The most obvious impact NFPA has on our craft is electrical, and anything electrical refers to the NEC directly because that’s the uniform enforcement code across the country. We’re very mindful of the fact that we need to make sure people understand that what we do is to the code, even though they’ve never seen some of our equipment before.
NFPA is also the preeminent organization for safety and standards in the U.S. Getting involved with that kind of cachet helps us increase our own profile. We’ve been involved with NEC Code-Making Panel 15 for many cycles. Edwin Kramer [a stagehand at the Radio City Music Hall in New York City] has been an IATSE representative on that code panel.
Give an example of how the entertainment industry is using the NEC.
There was some misinformation about grounding requirements [for motion picture and television off-studio location productions] and the Los Angeles County Fire Department didn’t know how to enforce it. They came to us this year and said, “We need to figure out what the policy is.” The chief gave us a list of issues with code enforcement. Inspectors were not uniformly enforcing regulations.
Three of us — Michael Skinner, director of plant services at CBS Studio Center in California and a member of NEC’s Code-Making Panel 15; Ron Dahlquist, founder of DADCO Power and Lights and an IATSE member; and I — sat down with the chief and asked him what issues need clarification for enforcement, and we told him what we feel needs to be clarified for enforcement. We went through all of those issues and wrote guidelines based on relevant parts of the NEC. The guidelines went through our revision process, were adopted by the fire department, and were developed into a safety bulletin with the Contract Services Administration Trust Fund [a nonprofit administering training and safety information to the motion picture and television industry]. You can find these bulletins at csatf.org.
Who else benefits from the safety bulletins?
They apply to anyone in the motion picture and television industry, though they have been used in other parts of the industry, including the Event Safety Alliance. PLASA [formerly known as the Professional Lighting and Sound Association], which is an organization that develops standards and services for the event and entertainment industry, refers to them. The bulletins are open to everyone. And it’s my opinion that we’re writing these guidelines for the world. For instance, if a production company is shooting in a swamp, they can take this document and put the guidelines into their call sheets so everyone can understand the hazards. We are often called upon to do things that appear unsafe or otherwise impossible. Stunts are the most obvious example, but in the lighting/camera/grip world, there are similar challenges. We need to place lights and cameras in places where there is no way to rig them, hide cables from being seen on cameras, etc.
Are there other NFPA codes or standards that might aid your line of work?
We’re looking for more representation on the NEC and to sit on the committee for NFPA 140, Motion Picture and Television Production Studio Soundstages, Approved Production Facilities, and Production Locations, so people know who we are and that we have influence on what affects our members.
You gave an overview of IATSE’s efforts at NFPA’s Conference & Expo in June. What were your expectations?
One of the things we’re trying to do — both with ICAP and PLASA — is to have a greater outreach to AHJs. NFPA is the premier organization for fire marshals and safety inspectors. The conference was a great opportunity because many of the attendees were in positions of being AHJs. We want a greater outreach with them so they know who we are and that we are a resource for them when they need it.
How have your members responded to your recent efforts?
For a long time, people looked at the entertainment industry as being nonprofessional, and we represent people who are very much professional. One of the problems with people who work in our part of the industry is that we’re not out for glory, we’re not out to blow our own horn. If we were, we’d be on stage and in front of the camera. We have a tendency to do our own thing or not be seen and recognized because no review is a good review. It’s now time for us to be out there so people know who the IATSE is. We want to be proactive instead of reactive. This has always been my personal philosophy: I’d much rather avoid an accident than deal with the aftermath of one. That’s a very difficult position to argue because you don’t have any tangible results. How do I prove that I avoided an accident? It’s very important for us to be very proactive. Nobody should ever go to work and risk their life.
Interview conducted by NFPA Journal staff writer Fred Durso, Jr.