Eastbourne theatre defends ‘chaotic’ fire safety procedure

An Eastbourne theatre has defended its fire safety procedure after members of the audience criticised ‘chaotic’ scenes and questioned what would have happened if it was a real fire.

Tuesday, 28th January 2020, 3:49 pm
Updated Tuesday, 28th January 2020, 4:11 pm
Members of the audience were left huddle together under the entrance of the theatre SUS-200128-153050001

Some alarms went off during the interval of Spirit of the Dance at the Congress Theatre on Sunday evening but with some members of the public still in the auditorium, others in the bar and some outside people said it was confusion with nobody taking charge.

A spokesperson at Eastbourne council said there had been an issue with the fire alarms but the evacuation was carried out “safely, effectively and efficiently” with everyone out of the theatre within a short space of time.

The spokesperson said processes and procedures were being reviewed after Sunday night’s incident.

Members of the audience were left huddle together under the entrance of the theatre SUS-200128-153030001

Michelle Gurr was one of those who attended the show but left criticising the evacuation procedure after she said there was a lack of communication which caused crowd confusion.

She said, “The chaotic shambles that happened leaves me wondering, ‘if it was a real fire how many people would have got hurt?’.”

The theatre-goer was with her friend, who has MS, and was sat in the main area of the auditorium right in front of the stage.

She said, “There was no sound going off in the auditorium, no announcement and no staff shouting or coming to us. I then looked up to the main doors and saw some staff in high vis jackets showing people to the door. Still no one came to us.

Members of the audience were left huddle together under the entrance of the theatre SUS-200128-153040001

“I helped my friend up who has poor mobility and we made our way to the doors - still not knowing what was going on. We got to the bar where the stairs are and there was a dull noise which resembled a toy running out of batteries - not a fire alarm I have heard before.

“The staff were standing by the entrance still not saying much. People were stopping to put coats on and huddling together under the covered entrance outside because it was raining. If there was a real fire then the fire brigade wouldn’t be able to get in the building.”

Michelle said she spoke with a member of staff whose job it is to let fire crews in and out of the premises.

She said, “I asked her why they weren’t clearing the door areas, she said ‘there isn’t enough staff, I have asked them but they don’t want to get wet’. As far as I’m concerned that is not good enough. I explained that there was no communication from staff in the auditorium and she said there should have been an announcement on stage. There should have been but wasn’t.”

Clive Featherstone was also caught up in the evacuation and voiced his concerns.

Mr Featherstone said, “Given the recent major fire at the Claremont Hotel, the whole approach was feeble, mismanaged and brought to light major lapses in a large public building regarding what must happen in the event of a fire.”

The grandfather-of-two said that during the show’s interval many people went to the bar or toilets, but on their return they were calling for those left in the auditorium to evacuate immediately.

Mr Featherstone said, “This was not an official notice, so it started numerous conversations. In the end, albeit slowly, more people stood up until finally a lone member of staff entered and said everyone had to leave.

“The entire audience gathered outside in the rain. Only after 24 minutes were they allowed to return.”

The council spokesperson said, “During the interval of Spirit of the Dance at the Congress on Sunday, a technical issue at the rear of the theatre activated the fire alarm and the decision was made to evacuate the venue.

“We would like to apologise for the disruption to the show and take this opportunity to thank the theatre staff for their professional response.

“We continue to review our processes and procedures and thank those who have given feedback already.”

An East Sussex Fire and Rescue Service spokeswoman confirmed it was a false alarm and said one crew engine was sent to the theatre but left 15 minutes later at 20.40pm.