A tragedy like the fire that took the lives of five girls in an escape room in Poland is unlikely to happen in the U.S., according to a man who operates five such entertainment ventures in the Midwest.
After the fire, Polish officials shut down 13 escape room entertainment sites for safety flaws, according to a report by USA Today. Officials said that five teenage girls were locked in an escape room at a private house in the city of Koszalin and had no emergency evacuation route.
Andrew Gipson, president of the Association of Room Escapes in North America and owner of an Omaha escape room, said there are several differences between the centers in the U.S. and the one that burned in Poland.
“For starters, the escape room in Poland was inside a residence,” Gipson said. “All of our escape rooms are standard commercial businesses that are regularly inspected by fire officials.”
Gipson owns The Escape Omaha near 63rd and Center Streets. He also owns escape rooms in Oklahoma City; Tulsa, Oklahoma; Branson, Missouri; and Little Rock, Arkansas.
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Another significant difference in Poland: The girls were trapped by locked doors. In North America, none of the doors “are ever really locked,” Gipson said.
Participants can push down on a handle and step outside at any time.
“If there is any hint of danger or whiff of smoke or anything else, the players can immediately leave the room,” he said. “If the power is out, they would find battery-powered emergency lights to show them the emergency exits.” Furthermore, even in a power outage, exits will open, he said.
Escape room games involve a group of players solving puzzles and finding clues within one hour to win their release. When all the puzzles are solved, the players obtain a code that verifies the time of their “escape,” Gipson said.
Other Omaha escape rooms include the House of Conundrum and Entrap. Those operators also have strong safety records, Gipson said.
“Escape rooms are something that is becoming more and more popular,” Gipson said. “In five years of operating these rooms, with 300,000 customers, my businesses have never had a single injury or claim.”
Gipson, who has family in Omaha, said fire safety codes are strict in the United States. Businesses must adhere to commercial construction constraints, including the use of thicker sheet rock — designed to slow the spread of fire — than residential buildings.
An official with the Omaha Fire Department could not be reached Sunday for comment about escape room safety.
“I can tell you that fire suppression systems are absolutely part of our safety features,” Gipson said. “If people have any concerns, they should call the business and simply ask whether the rooms are locked and whether they can see the fire inspection certificates. These aren’t mom and pop operations. We are very safety-conscious.”