Security Theater in the Theater

This is a bit surreal:

Additional steps are needed to prepare Broadway theaters in New York City for a potential WMD attack or other crisis, a New York state legislature subcommittee said yesterday.


Broadway district personnel did not know “what to do in case of an emergency as well as the unique problems that a theater workplace poses in the event of a fire or evacuation,” according to the report, which drew on interviews with theater employees following the attempted bombing.

“Taking the May 1, 2010, car bomb as an example, theater employees expressed how unprepared they were in dealing with the situation,” the report reads. “They were given misinformation, and they were directed to exit through portals they did not even know existed, indicating their lack of knowledge of the building they work in and exit routes. In the event of another attack, the same issues would arise.”

Posted on January 26, 2011 at 1:42 PM39 Comments


Alex January 26, 2011 1:56 PM

Amazing that some people can come to work in the same building every day and yet not know where their emergency exits are. That’s a major risk for any disaster, from fire to WMD.

Brian January 26, 2011 2:00 PM

The wmd talk is of course useless hyperbole, but surely it’s not security theater to make sure everyone is familiar with the appropriate evacuation routes…

Corey Mutter January 26, 2011 2:02 PM

They need to train everyone by waiting until it’s crowded and then yelling “Fire!”.

Kevin January 26, 2011 2:07 PM

Employees should know the procedures for most common emergencies, like fires, aggressive patrons, power outages, etc. I suspect that the police/government should get involved enough to provide resources (training, information) to those companies who want it, but I don’t think we need any more money dumped into the problem.

Anyone who operates a business should generate these procedures and train their employees. If the government needs to get involved here, then that’s a pretty clear sign that the companies involved are the problem.

BF Skinner January 26, 2011 2:09 PM

I agree with @Alex this is the responsibility of site management inside the facility.

But outside? Target rich. The low level of skill on the May 1 bomber was underscored by him picking time square where and when he did. Lots of people sure but spread out.

If you’ve never been to the theater district in new york? Think hundreds of middle-class to rich people packed close together during admission and exit.

Brandioch Conner January 26, 2011 2:12 PM

Strange. I work in Seattle and at every one of my jobs over the past 15 years we have had fire drills where we all leave the building through the exits.

Is the situation that different in New York?

TS January 26, 2011 2:20 PM

We have fire drills. Every fire drill, we do the same thing.

“…and they were directed to exit through portals they did not even know existed, indicating their lack of knowledge of the building they work in and exit routes.”

Does it? Does every employee, from the ticket booth to the backstage hands, know every exit? Or, as in most fire drills, are they just shuttled to the closest exit? Not knowing every exit sounds pretty normal to me.

Does everyone know where all the fire exits are? When you stay at the hotel, do you count the number of rooms from your door to both exits?

Chris January 26, 2011 2:43 PM

I don’t really see how requiring employees to know where the exits are qualifies as security theater. On the contrary, it strikes me as a prudent precaution. The WMD context is a bit of a movie plot threat though.

Steve January 26, 2011 2:45 PM

How about a five-minute safety video before each performance, and laminated cards with safety instructions in a pocket behind each seat? Set a requirement to empty theaters within 90 seconds. Only able-bodied English speakers may be seated at exit locations so that they may assist in an emergency.

moo January 26, 2011 2:55 PM

@Steve: At least on airplanes, the safety information imparted by those five-minute presentations that we’ve all seen a million times is actually useful. They tell you how to use the oxygen masks, remind you where the emergency exits are, etc. One thing that could use more awareness is the “brace for impact” position. In the admittedly rare event of a plane crash, passengers who adopt the brace position are more likely to survive/avoid major injuries than passengers who don’t.

mcb January 26, 2011 2:59 PM

Security theatre of the absurd, maybe?

According to the original report members of several unions reported…

“Although theater owners and production managers conduct ‘Life Safety
Training’ at the commencement of a production, the training employees receive after that is minimal if not non-existent.”

But among the report’s conclusions is the suggestion…

“Theater Employee Unions should cooperate with theater owners and
production companies in ensuring attendance at Life Safety Training
programs, including supporting mandatory attendance requirements…”


kashmarek January 26, 2011 3:07 PM

This is all just grubbing for money. After all, didn’t the mayor of New York City point out that his city is “target central” for such attacks. He should have all those “critical” places blocked out on Google Maps and discourage people from coming to his city to minimize the risk. We should soon hear about more such targets in an effort to gain DHS dollars. If they haven’t done anything about this in the past 9 years, it isn’t worth the expenditure. Who really expects the next 9 years to be any different?

Captain Obvious January 26, 2011 3:37 PM

@ moo

The only reason the 5 min of safety features on a plane is in any way beneficial is because it can be done while the plane is getting ready, ie you’re not going anywhere anyway.

If you waste 5 EXTRA min of everyone’s time for every theater show, or movie, or sporting event, etc you will actually be killing millions of people in terms of time wasted.

That’s right, TSA has killed far more people than 9-11 with their extra security waits.

I think it was when MS was developing Win 95 the developers tried to shave time off the boot by thinking, For every X seconds we shave off, we’ll save XXXX lives. (based on X people booting X times per day for X years)

Can’t we integrate that calculation into everything?

Civil Libertarian January 26, 2011 3:40 PM

The marketplace long ago created a solution for this: The liability insurance for my small (tiny) business requires that I maintain emergency policies and actively update & follow them. This includes employee training procedures for evacuation, workplace violence, etc. Are the theaters voiding their commercial liability policies by not doing the same?

The NY state legislature should be occupied with issues that pertain directly to its purpose . . . like its members’ entrenched corruption. Part of the reason I moved out of NYC four years ago; it killed me to give those clowns my tax dollars for the privilege of living in a decrepit city with a disintegrating infrastructure.

David Thornley January 26, 2011 4:13 PM

@Civil Libertarian: Except that the marketplace doesn’t work in preparing for rare events.

Suppose I run a theater, and have no provisions for an event that’s only 5% likely to happen over my time in charge. Suppose I decide to forget about that. 95% of the time, I get away with it, and 5% of the time the theater goes bankrupt. Moreover, the event might have other consequences that would drive the theater bankrupt even if I were prepared for it, and running a theater might not be a real safe business investment. Not worrying about the event might allow me to turn resources elsewhere and not go bankrupt in another way.

Therefore, the only way to enforce safe practices, either directly or through liability insurance, is for the government to require them. The usual best way is to require a certain level of liability insurance, and foster a competitive market of insurance companies.

Richard Nelson January 26, 2011 4:20 PM

Agree with those who point out that WMD is hyperbole, but it’s not security theatre to worry about what needs to be done in a crowded public place during an emergency.

But before we solve this problem … is there a problem? Every year Broadway sees millions of tickets sold, and it’s been the central theatre district of the United States for, what, a hundred years, 110?

In all those years – and especially the last 20 or 30 – how many emergencies, fires, etc., have there been? How many folks trampled to death, dead of smoke inhalation, etc.?

I think the answer is: not very many. 🙂

What does the Fire Marshal think? Are the theatres to code? Presumably. And the N.Y. Fire Code will be very specific about how the building is built (i.e., its level of flammability), what fire suppression is available, emergency lighting, egress doors, and their lighting.

I was very impressed when I did some work with the Union Pacific RR in Omaha that every meeting began with a rundown of the exits (and the washrooms :-), and of the nearest tornado shelter.

But there’s been an awful lot of experience over the years dealing with large audiences in public buildings. Is it clear there’s a particular problem in the Broadway theatres?

Civil Libertarian January 26, 2011 4:38 PM

@David Thornley: Good points.

At the risk of straying off topic, I should clarify a couple of thoughts. I don’t mean to be argumentative, and appreciated your thoughtful reply.

  • Liability insurance isn’t really optional for a legit operator, at least based on my 15 years’ experience as a small biz owner in the USA. I am contractually required to carry it by almost every other important relationship my business has: loan agreements, client contracts, municipal business license, etc. I imagine that employing union workers, as B’way theaters do, would bring at least a similar obligation. (Which makes me wonder where the shop stewards are, but that’s another discussion.) I suppose I could disregard those requirements but, geez, I’d be kept awake every night by nightmares about the Triangle Shirtwaist fire.
  • The rare events are exactly the reason that we purchase insurance. I wrote from the mistaken presumption that even proprietors who don’t do the right thing in the interests of their employees and customers might do it in order to fulfill the contractual observations described above. But you’re right, if they’re irresponsible, they’re irresponsible. And a punitive civil judgment or bankruptcy after an incident isn’t enough of a preventative motivating factor. Maybe a legal requirement for disaster training would motivate a certain portion of the ‘irresponsible business owner’ population. Better yet, criminal liability that pierces the corporate veil, by statute.

But I stand by my assertion that, whatever they do, the NY state legislature will screw it up. 😉

mcb January 26, 2011 4:52 PM

Yo, apoplects, time to RTFM. The report recommends minor revisions to safety training and evacuation drill frequency for union employees of production companies and theatre owners, obligations established by city fire code and OSHA regulations. None of this is about the safety of patrons, pre-show emergency briefings, or laminated seat back cards.

The only mystery is why it took the State House six months to come up with an 18 page report that contains maybe one page worth of sensible advice that no one is going to comply with anyway. That, and who at Ted Turner’s Nuclear Threat Initiative cherry picked only the lurid details from a mundane story found in the New York Times Arts Beat.

kingsnake January 26, 2011 5:01 PM

According to rumor, Homeland Security might want to defuse “Spiderman: Turn Out the Lights” as it is likely to bomb …

Dirk Praet January 26, 2011 5:13 PM

Obviously inspired by the 2002 hostage crisis in a Moscow theatre. 39 Chechen attackers along with an estimated 129 hostages got killed when Russian Spetsnaz gassed the place for lack of better ideas on how to deal with the situation.

It’s a pretty amazing document from where I’m sitting. Over here, many of the topics raised are covered by existing national legislation and European guidelines. There’s regulation pertaining to building architecture, fire/explosion prevention and safety, employee safety and training, mandatory liability insurance etc. Short: if a theatre or other public building fails an inspection, it has a limited time to get everything up to specs or get itself shut down. If someone gets injured or killed due to negligence or non-compliance with any of the above, there’s also personal accountability and the risk of jail time for managers/CxO’s. The bar of soap is on the house. On the upside: some of the mandatory stuff is tax-deductible.

I fail to see what can be done more to prepare for WMD attacks, unless the entire purpose was just to raise attention to the document with a popular scare and hopefully qualify for some DHS budget. Personally, I’d feel very disturbed if the mayor of my town would even hint at the possibility of preparing for WMD attacks of any kind. To me, that would be good enough a reason to go and move somewhere else. Or you can take the same stand people living close to volcanoes have been doing for centuries: you learn to live with it and accept it as part of the human condition of the place where you live.

jgreco January 26, 2011 6:42 PM

@Captain Obvious at January 26, 2011 3:37 PM

No. That calculation works with the TSA because when the TSA wastes enough time, they decided to drive instead of fly. Flying is safer than driving, so people die.

I have a very hard time believing that anybody is going to forgo theater because of a 5 minute safety talk and instead decided to go for an equivalent in length car ride.

In fact, if the 5 minute talk dissuades enough people from going to the theater, fewer people will be driving to the theater, and thus fewer people will be on the roads and there will be fewer car accidents….

Nobodyspecial January 26, 2011 9:43 PM

I fail to see what can be done more to prepare for WMD attacks

For weapons of ‘mass’ destruction thats probably true – however threat of attacks with weapons of ‘moderate’ destruction have not received their fair share of funding.

Skeptic January 26, 2011 9:55 PM

The report endorses every theatre having an Emergency Action Plan that includes “planning for every thinkable emergency situation” and also mandatory training of all staff every 6 months on the plan.
If I am working in Severance Hall do I really need to be prepared for every thinkable situation? Perhaps they should train me for the appropriate response if commandos parachute onto the top of the building and shut off the power in preparation for storming the concert hall?
Fire codes and evacuation plans are developed largely in hindsight based upon things that have been genuine problems in the past. I think the perceived problem in this case is that many theatre staff felt left out of the loop, they didn’t know what was going on or what to expect next. They were asked to shelter in place at first, and then were directed to evacuate via exits that did not lead onto 45th st.
I would have to say that almost all of the time I find ushers or front of house staff in a backstage or loading dock area, they are a danger to themselves or others. It is no surprise to me that they were unaware of loading-dock exits where it would normally not be safe for them to be.

uk visa January 27, 2011 6:02 AM

If the movie industry thinks it can fill more seats in movie theatres by scaring people out of Broadway theatres… well, it’s even more surreal!

EH January 27, 2011 10:28 AM

I fail to see what can be done more to
prepare for WMD attacks, unless the entire
purpose was just to raise attention to
the document with a popular scare and
hopefully qualify for some DHS budget.

Impossible! How dare you even suggest such a thing.

Have you ever been treated for psychiatric issues?

Mike B January 27, 2011 12:44 PM

I’ve said it before, you need to actually write a series of plays or sketches (or just brand someone else’s writing) and then present them at some conference under the title “Bruce Schneier’s Security Theatre”.

Sue January 27, 2011 1:37 PM

If New York has adopted the National Fire Protection Assn’s Life Safety Code 2006 edition or higher, then the theaters and other places of assembly are required to provide trained crowd managers at a ratio of 1 for each 250 patrons. The crowd managers must know all the exits and how to direct the crowds accordingly. All New York needs to do is to enforce the existing codes.

Dirk Praet January 27, 2011 1:48 PM

“Have you ever been treated for psychiatric issues?”

No, but I did once fail an audition playing a junkie in rehab, twisting the arm of the lead actress, which caused the production to incur some serious delay. At which point I decided that method acting was probably overestimated anyway and that there were more efficient ways to tick off large audiences.

really January 27, 2011 2:05 PM

I don’t think it would really hurt the theaters to inject one more slide into their pre-movie BS that took a second to show people where the exits are and ask them to take a moment to look around them to find the nearest exit. It will take about 30 seconds of revenue producing (not) advertisement space, though.

Riko January 27, 2011 6:46 PM

we had a tornado drill last year, that was mistaken for a fire drill.. instead of directing us to the shelter the people in charge sent us out side 🙂

Skeptic January 27, 2011 7:57 PM

The point of this report was that following NFPA 101 &/OR an approved NYC “Fire Safety Plan” was inadequate for the event that occurred.
In most fire and smoke events you evacuate quickly to the safe outdoors, in this case it was relatively safe indoors and potentially dangerous outdoors. For some buildings all of the egress points meeting NFPA 101 emitted onto one of the streets within view of the vehicle bomb.

There is such a thing as too much information in training, and some organizations hold training so frequently that it is seen by the majority of employees as as a timewasting impediment to the organization’s mission, so it is treated with disdain. So in this instance I think it is wrong to teach evacuation marshals about egress paths that require stamina and cannot handle large volumes quickly, even where it has been shown that such paths may be useful in some unlikely situation.

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