Spotlight on Broadway’s Emergency Preparedness

Seven months after an attempted car bombing in Time Square, local leaders are shining a spotlight on the Great White Way’s emergency preparedness. And as the theater season hits its holiday peak, those who work on Broadway are giving themselves mixed reviews.

In downtown Manhattan Monday, theater owners and union leaders joined with local and federal agencies responsible for workplace safety to collectively assess their response to the events on May 1, 2010, when a would-be car bomber attempted to detonate a device nearby several Broadway productions. For many in the room, that day was a test of workplace safety.

“We don’t think of theaters as workplaces,” said Assembly Rory Lancman, a Democrat from Queens, who convened the meeting through the Assembly’s Subcommittee on Workplace Safety. “We go and we watch a show and it’s enjoyable. But for the actors, for the people who are dressing the actors, preparing the stages, it’s a workplace and a workplace should be as safe as possible.”

Assemblyman Lancman said he scheduled the meeting to coincide with Broadway's busy holiday season to make sure the lessons from the failed bomb attempt this spring were top of mind.

“We realized that, in terms of evacuating the theaters and for the employees to know what to do and what not what to do, the theaters weren't as safe as they could be and we want to make some progress on that.”

The meeting included representatives from the federal Occupational Safety and Health Administration, the Fire Department of New York, the city’s Office of Emergency Management, theater managers from the Schubert, Nederlander and Jujamcyn theaters and union representatives from the Coalition of Broadway Unions Guild, an organization made up of several theater unions.

But the meeting wasn’t just talk. The city is currently in the midst of updating its fire code, a process that is conducted on a three-year cycle. Julian Bazel, counsel for the city's Fire Department, said while the FDNY is just beginning the process, input from Broadway leaders could help shape a new version of the fire code.

In that new code, due July 2011, the FDNY plans to include provisions related to Emergency Action Plans for theaters and public buildings not covered by the current code.

“An emergency action plan assumes your building may not be the target,” said Bazel, “but your building may need to decide what to do.”

Currently, high-rise office towers are already required to have emergency action plans. Theaters are required to maintain fire and evacuation plans, which are different and deal with incidents that impact a building directly.

Still, several union leaders said more needs to be done to keep up emergency preparedness right now.

“Things are good when a show first opens,” said Kimberly Rimbold of the Actors’ Equity Association, “but when people join the cast after a run starts, they don’t get the information they need.”

Speaking of the attempted bomb attempt in May, Rimbold added, “there were actors who said they were taken out of exits that they didn’t know existed until that night.”

Managers from the Schubert, Nederlander and Jujamcyn theaters said they all have emergency plans and conduct regular walk-throughs to ensure the safety of their facilities.

But union leaders still voiced a disconnect between the plans theaters have on paper and how equipped workers feel to execute them.

Assembly Lancman said his subcommittee plans to follow up with all the agencies and theater representatives at the meeting to make sure those plans, “aren’t gathering dust somewhere.”

“You are talking about workers who are highly skilled and in most cases highly educated and are used to taking direction if it’s given to them,” said Lancman, “they just need to be given the script.”