Five deaths in Poland in January raised questions about the safety of the popular new game, but owners of escape rooms in Ireland say their venues meet all regulations, writes Joyce Fegan.
Following the death of five teenage girls in an escape room in Poland earlier this year, Irish authorities have been carrying out inspections of similar venues here.
But what exactly is an escape room? How do they work, and are you really “locked in” until you can solve a clue?
Escape rooms are a popular, but relatively new form of entertainment around the world, where players are supposedly locked in a room for a period of time, and they must solve various puzzles in order to exit.
There are now escape room venues in every major city in Ireland, and they have become popular venues for hens, stags, and birthday parties, as well as for tourists. Owners of these businesses told the Irish Examiner that the success of the rooms has led to them opening second and third premises.
But popularity aside, safety comes first.
A spokeswoman for Dublin Fire Brigade (DFB), which has several of these venues in its area of responsibility, said escape rooms must follow the same safety regulations as any place of “public assembly”.
“Dublin Fire Brigade fire prevention officers have recently inspected all of the escape rooms in our area of responsibility,” she said. “The fire safety requirements for the escape rooms are the same as for any place of public assembly in that ‘persons on the premises in the event of fire must be able to make their own unaided way out of the building to a place of safety’.
As a result of the tragic incident in Poland, and on foot of the inspections of escape rooms in Ireland, some business owners, where required, were asked to carry out a fire risk assessment of their premises. The business owners may also have to carry out remedial work, if it is deemed to be required after the fire officers’ inspection.
The venues were also told not to lock any members of the public into rooms during the games or “performances” the DFB spokeswoman told the Irish Examiner.
Around the country, owners of these popular escape rooms welcomed the inspections and are glad of the heightened level of safety awareness that the tragic loss of life in Poland has brought about.
“A lot of people didn’t know what they were, and now they do,” said Sam Field Corbett, the co-owner of Escape Boats in Dublin.
“The confusion was around being locked in a room, [but] it’s just a figure of speech.”
In terms of their surging popularity and how they work, Mr Field Corbett explained that every escape has its own “story” and the games are built around a specific “scenario”.
“Our rooms are on boats, you start in an engine room scenario and you work your way through various compartments and escape out on to the deck,” he explained.
“Every escape room has a story. Ours is a deserted ship and you work through all the clues to get out on the deck before the ship sinks — obviously it’s not actually sinking.
“You have to send Morse code signals on a radio, it gets you into the feeling that you are actually in that situation.”
Sam and his business partner, Ronan Brady, built their escape rooms on a former potato barge, which they brought over from Holland.
“We built it to the specification of a passenger ship,” he said.
Due to the popularity of the venue, the pair are planning on bringing more of these boats to Ireland.
While lots of his customers are tourists, a large percentage are Irish, and who are simply looking for something fun to do with friends.
He found that his venue is equally popular with men and women, especially groups of friends in their late 20s, not necessarily celebrants of a special event.
Escape room owners outside Dublin are also glad of the increased level of public awareness around the safety of these venues.
Pawel and Emilka Wasiak own Exit Athlone, which they set up four years ago after experiencing escape rooms in their native Poland 10 years previously.
“I am happy that the inspections started,” said Pawel. “In a good escape room, the basic thing is not that you are exactly escaping the room, it’s about working out puzzles, be that identifying a smell, putting a hard drive in the right place, or working out a mathematical puzzle. To be ‘locked in’ is not necessary.
“We have emergency exits and when you hit an emergency exit the door will open. Players can leave the room whenever they want and they can get out.
“We did have people extra checking safety. The effect was good, because the non-compliant ones will have to improve. We had a health and safety inspection last week and we passed.”
Pawel left a job in a restaurant to start his escape room business. His business has grown consistently over the last four years.
“When I told my boss I was leaving work to set one up, he didn’t know what I was talking about,” he said. “Now they’re all over the country. Business is getting better and better every year.”
In Galway, escape rooms are top of TripAdvisor’s ‘fun things to do’ charts. The first and second spot in the “fun and games” category for the city and county are occupied by two different escape-room venues.
The Great Escape Rooms is the number one “fun thing to do” in the city, according to TripAdvisor. Its owner, Steve Bellissimo, explained that his customers are not “locked up”.
“While the idea of escape rooms implies you are locked up, in reality this is not the case in Great Escape Rooms Galway,” Mr Bellissimo told the Irish Examiner.
“Our customers are free to leave the room and the game at any time they wish.”
Mr Bellissimo explained the safety precautions that underpin his venue’s operation.
“For safety reasons, we have installed release buttons in every single room and even sub sections of the rooms. When a player wants to leave, they simply push these release buttons and it opens the door automatically,” he said.
Mr Bellissimo added that if a fire alarm is triggered all of the doors open. As well as giving each customer a health and safety information talk before partaking, alcohol and narcotics are forbidden in the venue.
The Irish Examiner contacted escape room venues all around Ireland: Several did not reply to a request for comment. One venue’s owner felt the issue has received “more than enough” coverage, declining to make any further comment.
In terms of anecdotal evidence, people are opting to have a “night out” in these venues over going to a pub. Escape rooms are often viewed as an alternative to an evening in a bar or nightclub.
While some people say that the world’s first escape room opened in Budapest, Hungary, 10 years ago, most will argue that the concept was actually developed in Japan in 2007, after a popular Japanese video game based on the same premise.
However, from a European perspective, it was Budapest where they first gained a foothold several years ago. The rooms here were originally developed around team-building exercises.
The concept was then franchised and spread to America and Canada, and then to the rest of Europe in countries such as France and Britain.
There are approximately 40 escape rooms in Ireland, with many tourists coming in from overseas just to experience Irish venues.
The Escape Boat phenomenon, where the games are played onboard a ship or a barge, is an Irish concept.
The idea is that you move through the various cabins in the vessel, working your way from the engine room to the deck. You are against the clock to get out on deck before the boat ‘sinks’.
Like the premise of being “locked in”, the boat never actually sinks.
Exit Athlone has four rooms in their venue, with each room built around a different concept.
One is designed around on conspiracy theories, where you must disarm a bomb before time runs out. Another is based on comic books and you must escape before The Joker returns.
Escape rooms around the world build their venues on such themes.
In Europe, Sherlocked in Amsterdam, where “thieves” have to try to steal a mysterious object from a state-of-the-art safe, is a popular venue.
While some venues are more intriguing than scary, there are some rooms that include the fear factor.
One of these is ‘Trapped in a Room With a Zombie’, which features a single ‘famished zombie’ chained toa wall. There are 25 of these zombie venues around the world.
Another popular concept in ‘Prison Break’ where players must break out of a cell in which they have been wrongly imprisoned.