The Ultimate Guide to Building And Operating Safe Escape Rooms (2023)
Creating Immersive Experiences with Safety in Mind
Escape rooms have exploded in popularity, offering thrilling experiences that captivate the mind and ignite the imagination. But behind the allure of clever puzzles and dramatic narratives lies a critical foundation: safety. Ensuring that your escape room complies with all relevant regulations, building codes, and safety measures is not just a legal necessity, but a moral responsibility to your customers, employees, and your business’s longevity. Plus, we like to add one more thing: our industry’s reputation. This comprehensive guide will attempt to navigate you through the intricacies of escape room safety, from fire prevention and equipment inspection to emergency response planning, ensuring that excitement never comes at the expense of personal safety.
1) Building Codes and Regulations:
The first step in designing a safe brick-and-mortar amusement business is to ensure compliance with local building codes and regulations. This includes codes for fire safety and accessibility, and possibly other regulatory standards.
Local authorities may provide guidance on the specific codes and regulations, and it is best to consult with them early in the design process to avoid any potential complications or delays down the road. With the exception of advanced jurisdictions, most authorities do not have escape room-specific protocols, standards, and requirements in place. Instead, they will usually place you in what they judge to be the closest bracket, such as “indoor recreation”, “arcade game parks”, “amusement/theme parks”, etc.
In addition to complying with local jurisdictional requirements and standards, you should use common sense. Even if something is “approved by regulators”, if your gut instinct tells you it’s not safe, do not use it in your facility.
|Pro Operator Tip:|
PanIQ Room has worked with several expeditors and national architectural advisors to ensure we’re up-to-date and well-educated on code differences, changes, and all details of the construction process.
Always ask yourself: what is the worst-case scenario? Particularly with elements like doors, automatic locking mechanisms, and other elements that physically prevent people from leaving a room. You might already have a standard operating procedure in place, including an ordered list of the game master’s resetting tasks. But due to the nature of working in a real-life facility with real people, unexpected issues and challenges may arise at any time.
Example: Your game masters follow a linear, step-by-step protocol when resetting an escape room. This escape room has three rooms, and the last room only has one door, which opens from the second. The doors have maglocks that only lock when the control room’s central system is restarted – so, in theory, you don’t need an emergency exit button in the third room.
Now, imagine a scenario in which the game master is called to the office during the reset. She loses track of the order of the steps, and finds herself locked in the third room. In theory, this should never happen; but in practice, when dealing with many variables and human error, it will happen.
(Solution: always install an emergency exit button, panic bar, or manual lever when there is a locked door and no other unlocked egress.)
To determine each worst-case scenario, it helps to think like a fire marshal. Even if there is a 0.01% chance of the worst-case scenario occurring, a fire marshal will point it out to you and have you change the design accordingly.
If there are no pre-established regulations in your area specifically for escape rooms, you still must comply with all commercial building codes and standards (and your business might be classified under an adjacent or similar regulatory category, which you will have to comply with). This is not only for the safety of your customers and employees, but also for the longevity of your business journey, which will likely include random inspections down the line. If the inspectors find anything wrong or questionable, your business license will be in danger.
Keep in mind: if a specific building regulation is missing, incomplete, or even slightly open to interpretation, it will be the inspector who has the final say — and if they decide your business fails the inspection, there is little you can do.
International events in the industry triggered the creation of task forces in many big U.S. cities (in 2018, for example). As a result, thorough inspections and amplified scrutiny of all escape room facilities have become very common, and in prestigious locations, essentially guaranteed.
Doing everything right upfront makes these edge cases even less likely to occur.
2) Equipment & Fire Safety:
It is crucial to ensure that all equipment, attractions, puzzles, and special effects are safe for guests. In practice this includes regular maintenance, safety inspections, and training for staff on the proper operation of all equipment. Consider purchasing escape rooms or individual props from reputable manufacturers to ensure it meets industry safety standards.
Pay close attention to safety when performing theming construction; when building your rooms (if you build them yourself); and during the installation of puzzles and props.
|Pro Operator Tip:|
PanIQ Room ensures its main puzzles and special effects (that include maglocks, or create significant ambience, light, or other in-game effects) are wired to a central panel connected to an electrical emergency shunt system.
In the event of a fire alarm, the shunt system cuts power and halts all special lighting effects, turns off all screens in the game area, and disables all maglocks.
ESSENTIAL SAFETY PRECAUTIONS
Safety checklist for fabricating and installing escape rooms:
- For heavy ceiling fixtures and heavy equipment (such as subwoofers, larger speakers, etc.) always use cable ties to solid ceiling (preferably to concrete or floor joists)
- Install a sprinkler system in all rooms
- Always use Class C or better wall coverings (including wall panels)
Some jurisdictions will require Class A rating, and some don’t even specify exactly. Some will require the same fire rating for all stationary items in the escape rooms, such as furnishings, props, etc.
- Never use highly flammable elements in large quantities in escape room manufacturing
- Add padding to lowered passageways to protect customers’ heads from bumping into door frames
- Perform overheating tests on all electrical equipment
- Passageways should have UL-listed locks and emergency exit buttons
|Pro Operator Tip:|
PanIQ Room’s standards and safety documentation is hundreds of pages long (including but not limited to electrical, materials, manufacturing, and installation requirements and guidelines), developed over the production of 150+ escape rooms during its 11 years in the industry. While some parts are considered trade secrets and cannot be shared publicly, all PanIQ Room products are produced following these guidelines
The goal of this document is to provide escape room owners with a basic framework on how to design, build, and maintain a safe escape room facility.
During escape room construction:
- Ensure site safety – keep an eye out for flammables, sharp objects, the safe usage of power tools, etc.
- Maintain a reasonably clean working environment
- Create safety data sheets and fire rating documentation
- Authorities might ask for it, and it’s best to keep this information in one place. Include all materials used to cover surfaces in the room (brand, product) and their application method
Always have proper emergency exit lights in each escape room and outside the game area. Unfortunately, most architects are not up-to-date on these types of requirements, so you will have to do your own research (or trial-and-error).
Having built over 150 escape rooms worldwide, we’ve gained a thorough understanding of the types of emergency lights that are generally required and accepted by regulators, which ones are the most practical, and how they should operate. However, responsibly sharing this information with the general public is not possible for PanIQ, due to potential unique or special regulations in certain areas.
Before opening an escape room for testing:
- As soon as buildout is complete, perform thorough safety checks in every room
- Look for exposed nails, screws, loose nails, construction leftover materials, etc.
- Search like a player: run your hands over every surface, inside and out
- If you think players might be able to reach inside somewhere, check that area for hazards
- Install “DO NOT TOUCH” stickers or similar solutions on objects/areas players should not engage with. Inform them about this policy before a game begins.
- Make sure all service doors, access panels, and electrical outlets are inaccessible for players.
- Install plug protectors on outlets
- Use service locks on service doors, or fasten the doors with permanent screws or bolts
- Mark all non-game areas for players
- Run safety checks at least once a week, in which you test thoroughly for anything hazardous (exposed outlets, splinters, etc.)
- Keep a commercial first aid kit in your facility, and make sure all staff know where it is
- Keep at least two fire extinguishers in your facility
- Purchase other necessary safety equipment (if required by local authorities)
- Ensure evacuation plans are correct and posted
- Ensure escape routes are always clear, safe, and unlocked
Always use passageway sizes for safety egresses that are approved by local and federal fire departments and comply with ADA standards.
- Important caveat: if you have a full-sized, fire safety-approved passageway from a room serving as exit route, the passageway to the next escape room doesn’t have to be full-sized. However, it cannot be inaccessible to people with disabilities.
|Pro Operator Tip:|
PanIQ Room has a complete guide for passageway sizes and types. These specifications are widely approved by all authorities PanIQ Room has encountered in the areas it operates, and comply with ADA requirements and USA standard fire safety protocols. Exact sizes are not shared publicly; PanIQ Room cannot be responsible for jurisdictions’ approval as-is, without proper information about the specific project locations and local codes and regulations.
When a client orders a PanIQ Room escape room, our company does the research for local requirements, and the package is then shared with the client.
3) Emergency Response Planning & Staff Training
In the event of an emergency, it is crucial to have a well-planned response in place that all on-site personnel are aware of. This includes fire safety equipment such as sprinklers, fire alarms, and smoke detectors, as well as clear evacuation routes and procedures for guests and employees. Regular drills and training can help ensure that everyone knows what to do in case of an emergency.
Escape room staff plays a critical role in ensuring the safety of participants. It is essential to provide comprehensive training for all staff members on safety protocols, emergency procedures, and the location and operation of any safety equipment.
Safety evacuation routes must be posted per local codes. This usually includes one or two posters displayed throughout the facility, typically in the hallways. Your architect should make these based on the facility’s fire exits, or provide you instructions on how to create them.
|Pro Operator Tip:|
PanIQ Room has a template for fire evacuation routes that has been accepted in more than 10 U.S. states.
Before every game, your staff is responsible for providing all players with clear and concise instructions on safety procedures, as well as escape room rules. (Alternatively, you can use technology as well: you can play a pre-made game rules video that explains these procedures in detail.) This includes informing players of the location of emergency exits and how to operate them; what to do and what not to do during the game (such as climbing where they’re not supposed to or touching service doors), etc.
By considering the factors outlined above, training your staff properly, and setting proper procedures in place, you can minimize the risk of injury and ensure a safe environment for everyone.
It is essential for your business to secure adequate insurance coverage. This includes but is not limited to: liability insurance, worker’s compensation insurance, and possibly other types of insurance such as risk, property, etc. Reviewing your insurance coverage regularly can help ensure you are adequately protected against potential risks and losses, as well as optimize your rates. Your landlord will require this too in virtually all cases.
To meet all your insurance needs, find an experienced insurance broker – ideally, one with specific experience insuring escape rooms companies and facilities.
|Pro Operator Tip:|
PanIQ Room works with an insurance agency that has issued complete insurance packages for dozens of escape rooms across the U.S., and still manages them to this day. Using the track record of over a million customers, they have managed to negotiate significantly better deals over the years for our corporate locations and our franchise partners than any standard insurance package.
“Flow is king, but safety first.”
Safety is not a one-time accomplishment; it is an ongoing process that requires diligence, commitment, and attention to detail. Each element of your escape room—from the design and construction to daily operations—must prioritize the safety of all who enter (including customers, staff & yourself). This guide has provided a framework for ensuring safety in escape rooms, but remember, every location will have unique challenges and requirements. Always consult local regulations and learn from industry veterans.
While the main goal of escape rooms is to provide an engaging, immersive experience, this objective should never compromise safety. As operators, we have the responsibility to create not only exciting but safe environments where players can have a fun time without any concern for their physical safety. Remember, a safe escape room is a successful escape room, and a well-prepared operator and a well-built room are the cornerstones of this success.
Lastly, remember to constantly evaluate and update your safety measures. The landscape of regulations, technologies, and best practices continues to evolve. As escape room owners, it’s our responsibility to keep up with these changes to ensure the best and safest experience for our players. Happy gaming, and as always, safety first!