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After death of teens in Polish 'escape room,' attention turns to safety

In the United States, experts say inspections take place once an escape room is built.
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Five teens died inside an "escape room" attraction in Poland on Friday from carbon monoxide asphyxiation caused by smoke from a fire that broke out in an adjacent room, investigators said on Saturday, according to the Associated Press.

The fire was sparked by gas near a heating system boiler, and the tragedy was likely amplified by a lack of a proper evacuation route, according to one senior firefighter.

Following the teens' deaths, Polish Minister of the Interior Joachim Brudziński to call for scores of the country's escape rooms to be inspected.

In the United States, experts say inspections take place once an escape room is built.

"In order to stay in business, you have to stay up with safety standards, and you have to play by the book," said John Denley, president of Escape Room International, which designs and builds escape rooms across the country. "It helps everyone sleep better at night."

Escape rooms have become a growing trend in recent years. The aim of the amusement is for groups of people, usually between eight to 10 people, to solve puzzles in order to either achieve a goal or, as the name suggests, escape a room. The puzzles can involve props, code numbers, and other clues found within the room to allow the players to successfully meet their goal. The rooms typically have a time limit.

Denley said the rooms his company creates are adventure based — one room might have players defeating an evil sorcerer while another might have them discovering clues to get a zombie antidote.

But a rule with his company is to never lock players in.

"Any room we've ever built, you're always welcome to leave room at any time, and one reason we found is because people act much differently," Denley said, adding that locking people in often makes them more aggressive.

And a number of tools used in the game also double as safety precautions.

Denley said that the rooms are video monitored. This allows for not only supervision, but for those overseeing the rooms to offer tips and clues if the participants get stuck.

"So we're watching, and giving verbal clues. If at any time someone needed to or had an emergency phone call, they would be able to leave," he said.

Jim Bullock, a retired deputy chief with the New York Fire Department who now works with NY Fire Consultants, said monitoring participants is just one way to keep them safe.

"[There must be] someone in charge that can say, 'We have a problem now,'" Bullock said. "If someone trips and breaks their leg, you have to stop and treat the person, which is what you do in any kind of medical emergency, let alone a fire, which is affecting everyone."

Denley added that the electronics inside a room must be low-voltage to prevent a fire and that the progression of a room must be simple, with few twists and turns.

"They should be telling [players] if there’s an emergency, we’ll stop game, the lights will come on and we’ll come on the PA system and we’ll show you the way out. You don’t have to give them a floor plan because it gives away the game, but you have to show them the way out," Bullock said.

Bullock and Denley both emphasized the need for escape rooms to have sprinklers and regular inspections from licensed consultants and fire marshals.

Both experts said there isn't a specific regulation for escape rooms, but that they fall under the umbrella of amusement parks and buildings, which require lights, supervision, and two exits, among other safety precautions.

Neither Denley nor Bullock has worked directly with the escape room in Poland, but both said that to avoid anything similar occurring in the United States, keeping up a relationship with the local fire department and inspectors is key.

"You want to go into a place with as much safety as possible because you also want to know your investment is safe," Denley said.