January 2011

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January 2011

The Last Word:

I Need a Hero

Justin A. Miller

Spiderman. Wonder Woman. Safety Officer? These three have so much in common, but if you didn’t immediately recognize them all as heroes, please read on.

Those who bear the mantle of Safety Officer may be the greatest unsung heroes and heroines of the theatre community. Whether they be technical directors, shop forepersons, facilities managers or any number of other titles, they do a job that deserves reverence and receives disdain. The main cause for this grand oversight could be that a good safety officer never needs to swing in and save the day at the last moment. Instead, they protect the innocent with planning and foresight.

The generalized title of “Safety Officer” is a term for the person who is responsible for health and safety in a particular theatre. Sometimes it is an individual position, but more often it is an “other duty as assigned” of the technical director or facilities manager. If you aren’t sure who this could be (or should be) in your particular theatre, here is a simple test: Imagine that a major accident has just happened in your theatre. When the investigator walks in to find out what happened and asks, “Who’s in charge here?” the person who would step forward is most likely responsible for overseeing your safety.

Like all of our favorite superheroes, Safety Officers have a heavy burden, and that is responsibility for others. The execution of that responsibility revolves around considering the absolute worst thing that could happen and then making certain that it doesn’t. Psychologists call this defensive pessimism. It is a combination of a negative outlook coupled with educated attempts to predict the future.

This includes both the acute dangers of the immediate future and the long term dangers of the distant future. For example, the Safety Officer concerns himself with the urgent dangers of improper rigging as well as the long term respiratory dangers of the air quality in the costume crafts shop. When all is said and done, after the danger is thwarted and the day is saved, the heroism will not have been achieved through daring acts and last minute displays of bravery, but with foresight, wisdom, and great resolve. The greatest irony of being the one to protect your theatre from itself is that if you do your job right, no one notices.

Though there is a great deal of weight to bear, the Safety Officer does not have to stand alone. All of the best comic book heroes have trusted friends and allies, and this breed of hero is no different. Anyone in the business of safety should know their local fire marshal. Even those who slept through theatre history know that a theatre can catch fire faster than an actor can drop a line. It is a common misunderstanding to view the fire marshal as a villain, as someone to jump at the mention of, as someone to hide from. But as the Great and Powerful Writer of Citations, this no-nonsense figure wields not only power, but knowledge.

The path of fire codes is winding and unclear; what may be true in one city won’t be in another. Keeping tabs of national updates and local statutes is grand task, so why not go to the source? If you ask the ticket writers what they would write tickets for, they will tell you. In this, two dangers are thwarted -- the actual danger the code was written to protect against and the danger of curtain closing fines.

Fire may be the scariest and most historical danger to the theatre, but it is by far not the only one. Our hero will have to make other super-friends to aid with the additional super-dangers. If a safety officer operates in the educational realm, this aid may come from university health and safety, or the office of campus safety, or various combinations of similar words. Everyone else will look to their local OSHA official. After you come to terms with the fact that OSHA is not a four letter word, you may realize that seeking their counsel is the easy way to compliance.

Even if you don’t know a PEL from the NFL, they can guide you through the sea of acronyms and footnotes. And just like the fire marshal, if you invite OSHA to come over to look around, they will tell you what they don’t like. They will even give you time to fix whatever is wrong before they fine you. The sadistic, ticket-dispensing reputation of this organization has been greatly oversold. When your Safety Officer proposes a ludicrous alliance with frightful figures, remember that the real enemies are lawsuits and injuries. Taking the theatre safely from one show to another is a big job, and your resident hero needs all the help he can get.

If these exotic tales of heroism are inspiring you to change your opinions and perhaps mend your ways, remember that for all of the Safety Officers that are out there fighting the good fight, there are many more houses of live performance that raise their curtain without the careful watch of one of these sentinels. Some believe that they “don’t need anything like that.” Broadway dreams and good intentions will see them through. Others think they can’t afford to implement a program, that everyone can just be extra careful through the budget cuts. But the worst are those who believe that peril is as much a part of the theatre as jazz hands, that taking risks proves dedication. To these misguided practitioners, please note that insurance providers and donors will not believe that the show must go on. The dangers are real, the laws are real, and the help is out there. Safety doesn’t have to be expensive, and there is enough to go around.

The point of all this dramatic prose is to make a small request. Someone in your company is watching out for dangers, dangers that could trip an audience member or set a curtain on fire. They are standing guard against fines and respiratory illnesses. They are reading boring handbooks and tragic articles, and they do it because they love the theatre just as much as you. They are not out spoil the creativity and the spectacle. And they don’t enjoy reminding everyone to keep the exits clear. The theatre is a wonderful and dangerous place. So if your Safety Officer tells you “No,” don’t take it lightly. And if your hero is yet to be hired, go out and find one.