#101Wednesdays - The Great Escape (...Or Not...)

“Escape rooms” seem to be popping up everywhere. For a fee, you're locked in a room with a group of friends. The goal is to escape from the room by searching for clues and solving a series of intellectual challenges within a given time-frame. Businesses use them as a fun team-building activity. Others go just to test their wits and see if they can solve the challenges before time runs out. It's a great concept… except for the being locked in a room bit. The fire safety implications are obvious: countless people have lost their lives in fires because they were locked in the building or their means of egress were otherwise compromised. The topic of escape rooms has recently garnered the attention of NFPA's Technical Committee on Assembly Occupancies. A task group has been established to determine whether escape rooms require special attention in the Life Safety Code.

And so it was with some skepticism that I agreed to my first escape room encounter on a recent snowy Saturday with my girlfriend and 12-year old daughter. I was admittedly curious to see what they were all about. I agreed to try it on the condition that I would evaluate the egress arrangement before we started the challenge to ensure it was safe; I wasn't about to jeopardize the lives of the most important people in the world to me (not to mention myself)! We drove through a near-blizzard to downtown Worcester, MA (not far from my alma mater, WPI), entered a nondescript office building, and took the elevator to the third floor. The first thing I noticed was the building was sprinklered and equipped with a fire alarm system – we were off to a good start. We were then led into the room from which we would try to “escape.” However, it was immediately explained that our objective was to unlock a door on the opposite side of the room, which led to another room with another locked door, which would lead us to victory (I was confident in our problem-solving abilities). Here's the important part: the door through which we entered the room was equipped with no locking hardware. We could leave any time we wanted, whether there was a fire in the building or someone needed to use the restroom. My concerns were quickly allayed. This was going to be fun!

One life safety question I had going into the experience was, “What is the occupancy classification of an escape room?” I believe they fall under assembly use (probably less concentrated) for the purpose of determining occupant load (see Table, but of course, they would not be considered an assembly occupancy unless the occupant load exceeded 49, based on the NFPA 101 definition of assembly occupancy:* Assembly Occupancy. An occupancy (1) used for a gathering of 50 or more persons for deliberation, worship, entertainment, eating, drinking, amusement, awaiting transportation, or similar uses; or (2) used as a special amusement building, regardless of occupant load. (SAF-AXM)

I don't believe the escape room I experienced was a special amusement building – the egress path wasn't confounded and lighting levels were not reduced. The escape room I visited was relatively small, with an occupant load of, most likely, fewer than 50 persons. Since the occupant load was fewer than 50, I believe it was a business occupancy, and it posed no unusual life safety hazard.

My experience with escape rooms is very limited. A quick Google search for the term “escape room” returned hundreds of hits – they're becoming more and more popular. It's incumbent on the business owners to ensure their “escape” scenarios do not physically restrict their guests against egress. Moreover, guests need to understand that they are provided with free egress at all times; this should be part of the pregame briefing. If occupants think their egress is restricted, even if it physically is not, it could delay their egress in the event of an emergency. (What would you do if you thought you were locked in a room and an emergency were to occur? Would you immediately try the door through which you entered the room, or would you frantically try to solve the puzzle you were working on to get out?) AHJs should be familiar with the Code's door locking and latching requirements in; the ability of occupants to egress a building at any time without the use of keys, tools, or special knowledge or effort is a fundamental tenet of the Code. Occupants can be contained only for safety and security purposes in occupancies such as health care and detention and correctional – never for entertainment.

The escape room we experienced was perfectly safe, and a great time. I wouldn't hesitate to do it again. Incidentally, we didn't make it out in our allotted 45 minutes. We were down to the final challenge, which had me plunge my hand into a bucket of slimy rubber worms to locate a key – it's harder than it sounds! (After time expired, the game master came in and had my 12-year old try. Of course, she found it within seconds. Figures.)

Do you have an escape room experience you'd like to share? Please post it in the comments. If there's a problem with these venues, we want to know about it. Likewise, we want to know if escape room owners are doing the right thing, as in my experience. Thanks for reading, and as always, stay safe!

Got an idea for a topic for a future #101Wednesdays? Post it in the comments below – I'd love to hear your suggestions!

Did you know NFPA 101 is available to review online for free? Head over to www.nfpa.org/101 and click on “Free access to the 2015 edition of NFPA 101.”

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Greg Harrington
Principal Engineer, Staff Liaison to the Life Safety Code and Health Care Facilities Code technical committee projects.

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