Author(s): Angelo Verzoni. Published on July 1, 2019.

Safe Escape

Escape rooms have become a booming industry worldwide, but with growth have come concerns over the safety of participants


Our wacky professor had done it again—he’d gotten himself trapped in some dark corner of the space-time continuum, and we had 60 minutes to repair his time machine, tucked inside an old clock tower, and rescue him. If we failed, he’d be stuck there forever.

That was the setup for a recent escape room outing I organized with my girlfriend, along with her sister and brother-in-law.

Around the world, escape rooms are a booming form of entertainment that involve confining paying customers inside a space, the goal being to escape the room or to keep moving into other rooms by solving puzzles or other brain-busting challenges, typically in 60 minutes or less. The attractions come in an array of themes, from medieval mysteries to futuristic adventures, and as the industry’s popularity has expanded, many of the rooms have similarly grown in sophistication and complexity. On a drizzly Friday afternoon in May, we made our way to downtown Boston to see for ourselves what all the buzz was about.

Our destination was Escape the Room Boston, which operates three distinctly themed escape rooms—The Apartment, The Dig, and our game, The Clock Tower—on the third floor of a nondescript concrete building in the heart of Boston’s theater district. Entering the building was a bit of a puzzle in itself; to get the front door to unlock, we had to call up to the escape room from a phone hanging on the building’s exterior. Once inside, we made our way to an elevator, which opened directly to the lobby of the business, whose space was clearly repurposed and much smaller than I had imagined. I could feel my expectations sink a bit as I looked around the cramped quarters.

But 10 minutes later, after we’d each paid our $30 admission and entered The Clock Tower room, my expectations were again on the rise. The room—which we would later learn was one in a series of three separate rooms constituting The Clock Tower—was intricately designed in the manner of a steampunk laboratory that looked like the haunt of a mad scientist, plastered with a jumble of clocks and lab equipment. Seconds after we entered the first room, a prominent neon-red timer began ticking down from 60 minutes. The game was on.

In this episode of Learn Something New by NFPA Journal®, we learn what special amusement buildings are and some of the ways the code works to protect them from fire and other life safety hazards.

We moved as swiftly as we could around the space, rifling through drawers and cabinets, flicking switches, and punching buttons in the hope of revealing clues or objects that would get us closer to freeing our time-hopping friend. We made it deep into the game, solving enough puzzles to progress into the third and final room. But with just a minute left and important clues still unsolved, I knew it was over. As the timer struck zero, speakers mounted on the ceiling bellowed a resounding womp womp, the universal sound of failure. The game had ended, and our professor remained stuck in some dank fold of time. We hadn’t even managed to get ourselves out of the clock tower.

Even so, the experience was worth the price of admission. It was my first time in an escape room, but it likely won’t be my last—the experience was genuinely fun, like being part of a movie or television show as opposed to idly watching it go by on a screen. I was impressed with the quality of set materials and the special effects. The puzzles were tricky yet solvable, and it was a good way to bond with friends and family.

But for anyone familiar with escape rooms, it’s not hard to see that the outcome can be very different if the concept is taken too literally.

In January, in the small city of Koszalin in northern Poland, a group of five teenage girls was participating in an escape room when a gas leak in the facility’s heating system reportedly sparked a fire. When the girls tried to escape, they found that the doors to their room had actually been locked—their only way out was to win the game. All five died in the fire. The owner of the business was charged with “deliberately creating the danger of a fire” and “unintentionally causing the death of people in a fire,” according to media reports.

Even though the teens’ deaths were the first known fatalities in an escape room anywhere in the world, according to the Guardian, the incident left many observers expressing concern over escape room safety. News organizations like Inside Edition in the United States, the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation, and the Irish Examiner newspaper ran stories with headlines such as “Are escape rooms safe?” and “How safe are escape rooms?,” citing the incident in Poland.

What this reporting, conversations with escape room experts, and my own experience have revealed is that escape room attractions are generally regarded as safe by those who design, own and operate, and even regulate them. But that doesn’t mean they’re all code compliant, and public safety professionals have questions and concerns over what corners may be getting cut in these facilities. For these reasons and others, it’s critical for authorities having jurisdiction (AHJs) to be vigilant about escape room safety and for organizations like NFPA 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.

“I’ve done [an escape room] once, and it’s kind of fun,” said Gregory Harrington, the NFPA staff liaison to NFPA 101. “But if they’re not done correctly, they can be dangerous. It’s a concern, and we need to get the word out to AHJs that they need to be cautious about how they’re permitting these things.”


Before my attempt at freeing the fictional professor and escaping The Clock Tower, I had planned to ask our hosts at Escape the Room Boston about safety and about how we could get out in an emergency. But I didn’t have to. Prior to entering the room, an escape room employee briefed our group on what to expect as well as what to do if we needed to get out, either for an emergency or for something as innocuous as needing to use the bathroom. There’s a clearly visible button inside each room that, when pressed, opens the door, she explained, adding, “We can’t lock you in for real.” Later, I noticed the room also had fire extinguishers and fire sprinklers.

On the surface, such a system seems safe, but Harrington voiced concerns when I described it to him days later.

NFPA 101, he told me, typically 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 there’s no light or there’s smoke and you’re crawling on the floor, you can feel around for the door hardware and have a good chance of finding it, whereas if you have a button off to the side, you may not be able to find it, especially if you’re not familiar with the environment,” Harrington said. Exceptions to this rule allowed by NFPA 101, he added, are for certain health care facilities like psychiatric wards and nurseries, or in jails and prisons. “But in an entertainment venue, at least in my opinion, it’s not justified. It goes against the fundamental tenet of the code, which says egress shouldn’t require special knowledge under normal or emergency conditions.”

Forensic and other police experts examine the site of a fire at an escape room.
NO ESCAPE Forensic and other police experts examine the site of a fire at an escape room facility in Poland that killed five teenage girls in January. The girls were unable to escape the attraction when a fire broke out due to a gas leak in a heating system. Photograph: AP/WIDE WORLD

The door-locking system that appeared to be present at Escape the Room Boston was pretty much what I had expected. A couple of days before visiting the escape room, I talked to John Denley, a veteran consultant in the world of escape rooms and other special amusement attractions like haunted houses. He told me that magnetic lock systems with a button or switch to exit are common in escape rooms.

Even if they’re not NFPA 101 compliant, such systems might be better than having a door that can only be opened with the help of an attendant on the outside or by winning the game—which was the case in Poland, and which is a setup Denley said he’s never seen in his experience designing hundreds of escape rooms across the US. Interestingly, he said, safety isn’t the only reason that this is the case.

For starters, he explained, an amusement based solely on the feeling of being locked in a room with no way out but to win the game or call for help isn’t that appealing—people today expect an experience that’s more immersive and interactive. “We also realize that people react psychologically much differently when they’re locked in,” Denley said. “They become more aggressive…and that can lead to the destruction of the props, which can cost thousands of dollars, depending on the complexity of the room.”

Denley said consumers’ rejection of simplistic escape rooms—where, for example, the exit door is secured by a padlock and the room contains clues revealing the lock’s combination—has made the industry self-governing to a certain degree from a safety perspective. And any concern over escape room safety, even in the wake of the Poland incident and questions over code compliance, would be misguided, he contended, when similar attractions like haunted houses generate bigger safety concerns, including dark environments and convoluted egress paths, factors that typically aren’t present in escape rooms.

“The [egress] path is not convoluted in an escape room, and it’s not incredibly dark,” Denley said. “We also inform participants that they’re being watched constantly. There are cameras in the room and somebody’s watching every moment.” The employees who watch the games and communicate via a screen or speaker to participants in order to give them clues or tell them not to do something unsafe, like try to move a piece of furniture, would in theory also be able to spot signs of a fire or medical emergency and intervene, Denley added.

KEEPING WATCH Escape rooms are monitored by facility employees who observe participants via video and provide clues over a speaker system. Monitors also theoretically assist participants in the event of an emergency. Prominent clocks count down the time remaining in the game. Photographs: Getty Images

For Harrington and most public safety experts, though, having somebody monitor the room might do little to increase safety. “What happens if the fire prevents the moderator from getting to the locked room?” Harrington said. “What happens if the moderator is a high school kid and panics and leaves?”


Globally, even more questions and concerns are being raised over escape room safety.

In 2015, Scott Nicholson, a professor of game design and development at Wilfrid Laurier University in Ontario, Canada, conducted a study on escape rooms in five of the world’s seven continents—Asia, Australia, Europe, and North and South America. After surveying 175 escape rooms in these areas, Nicholson found that a surprising number of facilities said players cannot get out of the room without a staff member letting them out.

“In about 30 percent of the responding facilities, the players are actually locked into the room and have no way to let themselves out; this poses a significant safety concern,” Nicholson wrote in the study. “Some proprietors state that this is what the players signed up for—to be locked in a room—but if there is a single well-publicized incident, it could be bad for the escape room industry.” Europe had the highest percentage of escape rooms in which players couldn’t get out without assistance, at 43 percent; Asian and North American escape rooms reported 20 and 21 percent, respectively, with such circumstances, while none were found in Australia.


“The most common solution, as seen in 37 percent of the facilities,” Nicholson continued, “is to provide the players with a way to exit the room in an emergency, such as a key for a mechanical door or a push button for a door lock powered by electricity (which would then unlock if the power went out).”

Again, Harrington pointed out that such a system would not be compliant with NFPA 101—what would be compliant are doors that don’t lock at all. “Just create the illusion of a locked door, and that’s fine,” Harrington said, adding that when he participated in an escape room in Worcester, Massachusetts, about a year ago, the doors remained unlocked for the entire game.

In his study, Nicholson found completely unlocked doors in just 22 percent of the rooms. “This percentage is higher for North and South America (36 percent) and much higher in Australia (67 percent),” he said. “Another solution is to provide a secondary exit that the players can access.”

In a series of emails to NFPA Journal in May, Nicholson was quick to note that, at least anecdotally, “the industry has improved significantly” in the four years since he conducted his research. While that means fewer rooms are locking participants in with no way of getting out except to win the game or call for help, it’s unclear whether compliance with NFPA 101 has improved.

Harrington, for one, has doubts that it has, since a high level of ignorance seems to persist over what systems are actually code compliant. “I’m guessing a lot of installations that are not compliant with NFPA 101 are happening in escape rooms,” he said. Magnetic locking systems with a button or switch to unlock the door aren’t completely disallowed by the code, Harrington explained. But in a non-specialized occupancy to be compliant they require redundant means of functioning, such as a sensor that unlocks the door when somebody walks in front of it. They should also be connected to a building’s fire alarm and sprinkler systems to unlock when either of those systems activate. The provisions related to such door locking systems appear to be “widely misunderstood and misapplied,” Harrington said.

Still, the most dangerous escape room scenario, in which players are locked in with no way out but to win the game or call for help, seems to have dissipated globally in the past few years.

“For example, in the Toronto market, players are not allowed to be [completely] locked in,” Nicholson said. “This caused a number of rooms to close, or to be altered to make spaces where players could always get out.”

Likewise, an article published by the Irish Examiner in May found that escape rooms throughout the European country are generally seen as safe by the fire service, and those that weren’t have been shut down. “In a good escape room, the basic thing is not that you are exactly escaping the room,” one escape room owner told the Examiner. “It’s about working out puzzles, be that identifying a smell, putting a hard drive in the right place, or working out a mathematical puzzle. To be ‘locked in’ is not necessary. We have emergency exits and…players can leave the room whenever they want.”

But the Poland incident shows safety improvements haven’t been universal. Following the blaze, Polish officials ordered fire safety checks at all of the country’s escape rooms; more than 1,000 violations were uncovered, about half of which related to issues with emergency exits, and dozens of facilities were shut down, the New York Times reported.

“The tragedy in Koszalin last week shows that in some countries there is still a way to go towards dealing with this issue,” an article published in the Economist in January read. “Escape rooms in Britain and America are safer: fire regulations and laws prohibiting kidnap mean that [participants] cannot be locked in without an alternative means to set themselves free. But that is not true elsewhere in Europe.”


Even with what Denley described as the self-governance of escape rooms occurring in the US, and with anecdotal evidence of increased escape room safety abroad, AHJ involvement through the process of building and maintaining escape rooms is critical.

In 2016, escape rooms first came to the attention of Vinny Quinterno, a fire safety training officer for the Rhode Island State Fire Marshal’s Office who serves on three NFPA technical committees. Some members of the general public had voiced concerns to the state’s fire service over a new attraction that was “locking people inside rooms,” Quinterno told me in May, so he and a couple of other fire safety professionals went to check it out.

DIFF'RENT STROKES As the industry grows, so does the array of escape room themes and novelties. Left, participants search for clues in a jail-themed escape room. Right, participants encounter a brave new world in a promotional photo for a new escape room in London, England. Photographs: left, Newscom; right, Reuters

What they found was that the escape room in question wasn’t actually locking participants in—but operators weren’t explaining that to participants, and they also weren’t informing them of what to do in the event of an emergency like a fire.

Quinterno’s first reaction wasn’t to blame the business, but rather the state’s inspection system. “It bothered me,” he said. “I was thinking to myself, ‘What are we doing wrong here to have [a business like this] fall through the cracks? Are we not educating escape room owners about the importance of having an emergency action plan?’” It was especially troubling for him given the fact that Rhode Island was the site of one of the deadliest assembly occupancy fires in US history, when The Station nightclub burned in West Warwick in 2003, killing 100 people. Since his first encounter with escape rooms three years ago, Quinterno said he “would like to think things have improved,” but he hasn’t visited enough of them to know for sure.

According to Denley, improvement has happened. For the 200 or so escape rooms he’s helped design, the owners or facility managers have all had good relationships with the local AHJ, he told me, even if sometimes he’s been the one initiating those relationships.

“I always get the building inspectors and fire marshals involved from the very beginning, and I think anyone who doesn’t is a fool who’s asking for trouble,” Denley said. “It’s all about checks and balances. It doesn’t take a lot to comply and do it safely.” One thing Denley stresses in his work, for example, is the importance of educating escape room employees on emergency evacuation procedures, and he’s found “that goes a long way with the fire marshals.”

Quinterno still worries, though, that even if the inspection and permitting process for escape rooms has evolved over the years, the changing nature of escape rooms—it’s typical for an escape room to offer new and rotating attractions—could present hazards. “While these escape rooms might comply when they open, who’s to say that they stay in compliance once in operation, such as after redesigning a room?” he said. “Are AHJs approving these modified plans?”

Quinterno hopes the regulation of escape rooms will become clearer with the release of the 2021 edition of NFPA 101. Annex language related to escape rooms has been proposed for the future edition of the code, an effort led by a task group that included Quinterno. (See more on proposed changes to NFPA 101 related to escape rooms in this issue’s “In Compliance.”)

The proposed language would, among other things, offer guidance on whether to classify escape rooms as special amusement buildings, business occupancies, or something else. Special amusement buildings, being a type of assembly occupancy, warrant more stringent means of fire and life safety protection, including automatic fire sprinklers and smoke detection systems that, when activated, also trigger the illumination of emergency lighting.

Quinterno said he favors the special amusement classification, but Harrington warned it could unnecessarily put some facilities out of business. “For the one I went to in Worcester, there’d be no reason to classify it as a special amusement building,” Harrington said. Even so, Quinterno said he prefers to “err on the side of caution.”

“Unfortunately, I feel that sometimes people get carried away,” Quinterno said. “The special amusement classification is a bit more restrictive and requires a sprinkler system and a supervised fire alarm system. … We’re such a reactionary society and we need to be more proactive.” 

ANGELO VERZONI is a staff writer for NFPA Journal. Top photograph: Getty Images