Saturday, July 21, 2012

Batman Aurora theater shooting: Why did Cinemark’s cinema safety system fail?

Why did a cinema's multiplex fire door allow access the wrong way? Why didn’t the (silent) alarm go off when they were opened? How did four guns, and body armor end up accessible through that door? What happened to the manager who should be checking the fire door when James Holmes left the screen in order to secure it? And why was the Cinemax not put into ‘emergency evacuation’ mode automatically with gas/smoke hitting detectors, the fire door triggering the silent alarm, and a manager hitting the evacuation button?

I don’t know.

As one of the thousands of people who have worked large Cineplex movie houses, I cannot understand how so many things went wrong with the Cinema system to allow this event to occur. Even so far as to have someone in an adjoining theater to end up shot through the wall because the cinema was not evacuated.

Linda and I were both shocked and saddened to hear of the shooting. I was looking forward to the final Batman film by Nolan, like those attending the midnight Premier showing in Aurora, CO. According to the
BBC, James Holmes exited the emergency exit, returned in bulletproof vest, body armor and gloves, a gas mask, with four guns and threw two tear gas grenades before he started shooting. 70 people were injured or killed, 12 died, 11 in critical condition. James Holmes was a Ph.D. candidate who, like many of the film goers to the Premier was dressed up, and told the police when arrested he was ‘The Joker.’ The shooting took place only 20 miles from the Famous Columbine School shooting.

I worked four to five years at a Multiplex of 12 screens during many big openings, including some of the Lord of the Rings and Star Wars. So having hundreds line up in costumes in advance is part of movie experience. My job, or specialization was in crowd control and movement during large events.

The Batman screening at the Aurora was in a 16 screen multiplex owned by Cinemark, the second largest cinema chain in the US (probably after ones owned by VIACOM who is part of the group which owns BlockBuster and Coka). My visit last week the Cineplex, and talking to staff showed me that the system from seven years ago is still in place, including the ‘blue shirts’ (managers). Part of staff training from day one is for an event just like the one which happened was, for everyone who worked at the multiplex where I was, a mandatory monthly requirement. And every six months full ‘live’ tests with schools of children bussed in to replicate a potential life threat to the 2,000+ people in the screen was conducted. If what the BBC reported happened, it could not have done so and wouldn’t have done so at the Multiplex/Cineplex where I worked: so what happened here?

The reason there is a higher standard around the world for a Cinema/Theatre is because Cinema’s have regular lethal fires/incidents starting with the death of over 600 at the Iroquois Theatre in 1903; then Laurier Theatre Fire in Montreal (77 dead), but occurring regularly around the world in 1955, 1960, 1977 (694 dead), 1978 (438 dead), 1983, 1997 and 1999 (75 dead). The danger of Cinema’s was due to the extreme flammable nature of old film stock (now replaced with less flammable or digital). Then there is the use of large and complex projectors for 14 hours or more straight, which use oil and can get very hot, as well the number of people in a fixed location, like a concert or club where injury by trampling occurs. All these require high safety standards met by building design, door, alarm, dectors, and other inert safety measures and high levels of staff training.

Staff who work at a cinema, particularly a multiplex, should be aware, like those who work on a ship, that due to the history of disasters, they are the trained people who will ensure no one dies. After 9/11 we all knew that, like a Stadium, a cinema multiplex, with 2,000-4,000 people at capacity, is a target.

Addition: One news report now states that after the smoke grenades, and 20 shots, a manager turned on the alarm for the building, made an announcement and starting an evacuation. By the time the evacuation started, the police were already present and in the fire exit path in gas masks and body armour. The cinema sceens seemed full and the screens did not go into auto-lock (the film turning off and the house emergency lights coming on). Here is a report from someone in another screen, who was there that night. If you look at the picture at the bottom, you can see that no staff usher ripped the tickets, meaning they entered Screen 1 without having passed a control point and had the ticket stub taken. This indicates the cinema was likely understaffed that night.

So: How did James Holmes leave the fire exit and return without the alarm going off?

Fire Exits are meant to do just that, help people exit in case of fire. At the start of every shift in a cinema, I or someone would have to radio to the central office that I was doing a ‘fire exit’ check. The alarm which would send the fire department was turned off, and I would check every single door at the start of the day, and again at the end of the day to make sure they were not blocked, and the walkway out was not blocked in any way. Then the alarm is turned back on. Where I worked there was a delay, to allow for a visual check before the signal went to the fire department.


Because with 12, or with Century Aurora, CO Cinemark 16 screens, there is no way to be able to tell if there is a fire, or other emergency simply by the working staff seeing it in time (staff are taking tickets, seating, cleaning screens, selling popcorn, selling tickets, cleaning toilets, etc). The opening of a fire door during a film is a signal to check out why, and quickly. So with
Associated Press saying that a Federal Law Enforcement Person told them James Holmes propped open a emergency exit side door during the movie, donned his protective gear and returned to the cinema screen to open fire with guns on the crowd. Again, why when the alarm went off in the office was no one sent to check on this fire door.

Yes, during the five years I worked at the multiplex/cineplex there were maybe hundreds of false alarms to check, over a dozen full evacuations and not one emergency involving loss of life. But that is the job. You check because without checking, and ensuring the door is tight, and that it can swing open for exit easily but cannot be opened the other direction, you are not ready for when trouble comes.

Why does the door only open one way? And why are they inaccessible from the other side?

You may think that the reason is to stop people sneaking in, but no, it is to prevent the spread of fire and loss of life. The reason doors only open one way is that if most movie customers can’t find the bathroom sign when they are looking for it, imagine how hard it is to figure out where to go during an emergency. The last thing needed is to have even ONE person re-entering a cinema that is on fire (and you know they would...because they forgot their cell phone). That is also why each staff person is assigned a screen to evacuate, or when short staffed, two small screens (yes, and bathrooms). And yes, I did evacuate screens because the alarm had gone off. Once a smoker illegally smoked and set off the alarm for the largest screen during Lord of the Rings. And it was raining outside. So having 500+ people want to lynch you for ruining their night out watching Lord of the Rings is part of the job. And no one goes back in, no one goes past you, and no one goes out the front, to make sure people aren’t trampled (enough people will exit the bathrooms or lines for films to end up with a group of people coming out the front anyway).

The building is emptied during an evacuation, all screens, not just the one where the alarm went off. The Fire Department has already been automatically notified and will check the building. They and the managers will have the keys to the evacuation doors. Once cleared, people reenter, after a short delay the movies resume. If it is not cleared, emergency officials take over.

So, the days of sneaking into a cinema, then opening the fire door and sneaking in your friends SHOULD have disappeared decades ago. Because a fire door which can be opened, or accessed or tampered with from the other side is not a safe exit. And creates an unsafe building.

So when news reports say that James put on armour and guns and prepared to shoot people with the fire door propped open for up to 30 minutes, something is VERY WRONG. What happened Cinemark?

Cinemark is saying that they have new ‘safety protocols’ like not allowing fake guns into the cinema during a screening. Uh…..right. But what about basic fire protocols?

As for leaving four guns and full body armor out in a exit causeway? How is that possible? Unless you are working that shift, and checking those doors with the alarm turned off, you should not even have access to the 'exit flow' out to the parking lot. Basic safety protocol BEFORE 9/11 stopped that from happening. And AFTER 9/11, the security increased, because a multiplex has 2,000-4,000 who have handed over their safety for two hours by buying a ticket. So whether the gunman he went to his car and got the guns there or they were in the fire exit path, that was a major safety breach.

Why didn't the grenades going off trigger the detectors, evacuate the building and notify authorities?

If one person smoking can cause an evacuation, then how can the EXPLOSION of two grenades, and the charges in them not set off a detector? This SHOULD have triggered a full evacuation of the building and immediate notification of the fire department for two reasons. The First is that due to the history of lethal disasters and the risk of electrical, oxygen and other types of combustion, there are not only two types of emergency fire extinguishers available for trained staff (I know, as I used one during a fire that occurred beside the cinema). Staff are supposed to pass both written tests but also have hands on training. Yet often that is determined by the corporation in charge. Because of history of fires the detectors in cinemas are much more sensitive for anything which could be considered a threat(remember it was the tear gas grenades that started the fire at Waco, TX). I would think that post 9/11, gas would be included in what would set them off. Even if that wasn't triggering the detector, the powder shock charges blowing open a grenade inside a cinema screen should qualify. Second, Batman was filmed using IMAX and 70mm film, which means a projectionist should have been up in the booth, and the projectionist has their own fire alarm system which they can trigger in case of any problems. The reason is because historically the projector has been the trigger of many fires, often the projection booth is isolated for fire safety, and a small window gives the projectionist a view of the screen and audience.

In the same way, if there is a raging fire in screen 5, you don’t want screen 4 and 6 to keep watching their film as the fire grows, that is why the automatic evacuation alarm sends out an automated message. Once the alarm is triggered, the entire multiplex evacuates, and yes it may cost a few bucks but it is better than loss of life. When the alarm occurs, the message comes over the speakers, the film projection is cut, the exit is lit and the audience is informed to proceed to the evacuation point – which is where the staff should be leading them. A few staff then check each screen, each toilet, and under the front ‘masking’ of the screen to ensure the building is evacuated.

So when “Eyewitnesses say bullets from the shooting in theatre nine passed through the theatre walls into adjacent screens, injuring people there also.” (
source) It is the exact opposite of what is supposed to happen.

Why did it? Only Cinemark can answer why the fire exit either had no alarm, or the alarm was not checked. I am guessing, from talks with managers and staff in recent trips to the cinema that the building was extremely understaffed.

Premier Showings and Midnight Showings often call for extra staff, but as most multinational business’ know, it is the staff hours that where profit or loss is often made. One summer the multiplex owned by VIACOM guessed wrong and used up the extra hours on a dud opening. So for the rest of that summer, 12 screens were watched, cleaned and checked by TWO people. It simply isn’t enough. Yet the 10 screen I went to last week had only 1 usher on duty. And at a six screen cinema I attended a few weeks ago, the Manager told me that ALL of the projectors were merely on timers and that the projection booths were locked and that only ONE person had the key to get in. So if a fire started in the projection booth, good luck dealing with it in time.

The staffing levels should be enough on the Screen Usher Level to: check to ensure each customer has a valid ticket and is not sneaking in with a cast off ticket or ‘I forgot it back in my seat’, a manager should be on floor to deal with any issues or complaints, there should be enough working walkie talkies to be sent to check out any problems, and each screen should be checked during trailers and the start of the film to ensure that the masking and focus is correct, and that the surround sound is working (and that the Bass hasn’t tripped the switch to leave the audience with only the forward sound). There would also be enough staff to check each screen a couple times during the film to ensure that there are no problems (from fights, to getting drunk, to vomit, to people throwing popcorn to hauling pedophiles with their pants down out to give to the police – it all happens, including people sometimes having heart attacks during the film).

For a Premier Showing, which would almost always be a full house, a staff member is almost always left in the screen to make sure nothing has or will go wrong. If there is no special advance showing for reviewers then these are the people reviewing the film, or referring it to friends. How this 'Premier' goes is what makes a profit or a loss. But no one has talked about the Cinema staff on the news. I think that is because perhaps they were understaffed and undertrained. Training costs money. Doing fire and emergency drills costs money and while it may save money in the short term – eventually somewhere there is a tragedy.

I don’t know if a manager turned off the silent alarm fire door system, or if it was ‘unwritten policy’ to turn it off in order to save on staffing. But there is no way this could have occurred with a functioning fire detection and door system alarm. People don’t walk INTO multiplex’s through the fire doors unless something is very wrong with the management and training.

Instead of press releases and talking about costumes, guards and fake guns, I hope Cinemark’s Century cinema’s will instead activate the alarm systems they should already have in place. That is on the doors, with the switchboard in the central office, the manager on the floor, and the detector for the changes within the cinema (two grenades go off and no automatic alarm for evacuation?), on the emergency egress, and the training for the staff to prepare them for emergencies.

Our Cinema had a ‘safe room’ for those who were disabled and unable to evacuate in time, which was self contained and had 24 hours of oxygen. ‘So once we bring the person in the wheelchair here, we can leave right?’ one recent hire asked me.

‘No, you represent the safety of this cinema, and where the people who trust you go, you will stay. If you have a problem with that, then you shouldn’t do this job.’ Four of them stayed, one quit. If someone making a low end wage is the foot on the floor, hand on the door of safety, it is the company which buys the equipment then creates and enforces the regulations to ensure safety.

I hope Cinemark realizes that for two hours I haven’t just paid for a film, but for the safety and security they provide.


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Kate J said...

Your insight and background knowledge has been really useful in trying to understand how such a dreadful event as this could have occurred. I also work in a cinema - a small, community-owned one, as a volunteer - and am responsible for fire evacuation and other emergencies, which thankfully, I've never had to deal with. We would have no defence against an attack of this kind... but in USA, and in a major multiplex chain, they should really be ready to respond to attacks of this kind.
Sadly,I'm sure everyone will always associate this movie with these tragic events.
Love and peace

mari said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Neil said...

Thanks for the insight, Beth. It's interesting to hear what really happens in cinemas, other than a movie and popcorn. A friend of one of my children has also worked in a cinema, but he never mentioned any training of the sort you mention.

I have trouble believing the guy obtained so much ammunition legally. He must have gone to different sources, for surely someone should have noticed such huge amounts going to the same person. And how, even in the USA, does one legally buy smoke grenades? (Perhaps from the same place that sells rocket propelled grenades to the public?)

I think it's time to suggest to my employer that the company's bomb threat brochure be circulated again, along with information to help us deal with evacuations, etc. Would you believe, though, that when I asked for training with a fire extinguisher, the health and safety person said it wasn't necessary? Even though the fire depertment was offering the training to us at reduced rates...

I am left shaking my head at the state of the world.

Love and zen hugs anyway my dears,

Raccoon said...

I foresee some lawsuits in the near future.

I remember working with film projectors (a long long long long time ago), and dealing with fire doors and such.

I had been wondering why all of the news accounts had seemed off. Thank you for reminding me of what I was missing.

And, yes; I am still here. I've been reading through my inbox, and not commenting. I'm trying to change that…

Raccoon said...


The guns he bought legally, over-the-counter. There are mandatory wait periods of various lengths for the for the different types of guns he bought. The NRA is a very powerful lobbyist, here in the states. Which is why laws like the "Stand Your Ground" ones n Florida and Texas are on the books, and why semi automatic rifles are legal (you need a semi automatic rifle to go deer hunting? Really?).

The ammunition, according to reports, were bought in numerous places, including over the Internet. Also legal. Granted, it was from more than one place. Again, there is no central data location to collate all of that information. There's not even an individual state mandate for that. Also, it takes time to process that information: not all sales are done by computer.

Smoke grenades? Amazon. (the link goes to a Google search page). Apparently, they get used a lot for paintball.

Same for the ballistic armor, which he bought online. I read that the owner of the company that he bought everything from said that there was nothing unusual with his order, which means he's not the only individual purchasing this stuff. Heh. I could even buy this stuff. Not that it would do me much good…

And this is all possible because of the Second Amendment. And the NRA.

One other thing about this guy: he apparently identifies with the Joker, from the last Batman movie. The Joker in that movie was a nihilist, not an anarchist.

GirlWithTheCane said...

Let the lawsuits roll. Cinemark has some explaining to do.

Are you okay, Beth?

Much love,


Neil said...

Raccoon: Good to hear from you!

Thanks for the response. I'm aware that the NRA is keeping the Old West alive. Of course you need a semi-automatic for deer: you use hoolow-point or fragmenting bullets so you don't have to grind the meat later for sausage.

I'm also aware of the waiting period, though my perception is that the wait time in Texas mau be the time it takes to ring up the sale. And yes, he CAN buy that much ammo legally thee; it was more of a boggled mind than actual disbelief.

As for tactical armour, even females can look good in ballactic nylon: But I never thought that paintball armour was "the real thing." Our EMS personnel have to wear bulletproof vests, but they say it's because of knives, not guns - doesn't make the life of a paramedic look very glamorous, does it?

So logically, I can understand how the Aurora dude got all his stuff; it just boggles my mind that he's not the only one out there so armed.

I do hope that there aren't many apartments booby-trapped the way his was, though.

Thanks again Raccoon. Always good to see your words!

Hugs to you too, friend,

Elizabeth McClung said...

I think since the Brady Bill lapsed you can by automatic weapons. In Canada there was a relaxing of the firearms law to allow for rifles, which resulted in the Eaton Centre shooting. Though having rifles if you hunt deer or live on a farm is not uncommon.

The type of tac gear he had seemed to be similar to the four bank robbers a decade ago in LA, which convinced the LAPD to upgrade the bullets and guns they used as AK47's were, in the 90's going for $25-$45 in LA, and with full helmet, gloves and full body tac gear, a person can be protected against most ammunition.

The problem is that, in my experience, and statistically it has been found that owning a gun does not mean understanding the appropriate time to use it. Many people are shot in the US because of fear. For example, the fear of bears. When I hiked the Appalachians, the number of people who were on a day hike or overnight hike with a weapon was scary (sometimes dozens a day, fresh out of the city, afraid of bears, which I did not see once in 3 months, all carrying guns 'just in case'). Why? Because they were honestly scared of a bear, in Virginia. A workmate of Linda's saw a bear and cub on the beach in Sooke last week. No need to shoot it. No desire to shoot it.

But the FEAR means that people go ahead and shoot if they THINK they are in danger. But not many bears get shot by handguns on trails - hikers however are not so lucky. In WWI and WWII they found that only 1 in 10 can fire with intent to kill. Which is why in Vietnam, they told soldiers to fire whether they saw the enemy or not - increasing the number of bullets flying in the desired direction.

So, the arguement of handguns in cinemas vs. fire extinquishers - there have been to date: 1 shooting in a cinema (and that would have been prevented if fire safety was followed), but about 20 lethal fires of over 40 fatalities in cinemas. And for success, the person would need to a) have a gun accessible while seated in a comfortable position to watch a film, b) be used to accessing danger and the situation and taking appropriate action (for example, hitting the floor and crawling might save the person's life but would not be a success in terms of firearm deployment), c) despite smoke, confusion and others milling, be able to take effective action, without a vest or protection against someone in full protective gear - and avoid being shot while doing so.

While the feeling of wanting to ACT, to DO SOMETHING is strong, the chances of buying a gun and making the correct call at the correct time in a cinema are so remote that statistically a person is better off buying lotto tickets, winning the 10,000 prize and building a personal cinema.

Or if it is a genuine worry, have them like Heathrow, trained police with submachine guns and dogs.

Anonymous said...

Nice article, thank you. Hopefully I didn't miss this.... what is the seating capacity of the screens at the Cinemark 16? I'm trying to figure out the strange number of counts given to this person.

I would think the seating capacity in the average size would be >300 or 400?

thanks, joe.

Elizabeth McClung said...

Screen 9 at the Cinemark was 300 seating with a dozen empty seats.

There were two other screens that night showing Batman within 10 minutes of that time at the Aurora cinema.

Generally in a multiplex there are 1 or 2 screens which hold around 400-480 seats. In midnight showings usually only 6-8 screens are used because it is not financially worth showing marginal films in the smaller screens in terms of staffing. Also if a multiplex is connected to a studio (and most are), they will be required to show the films of that studio in at least half of the screens, even if the films are total duds - as the most screens the films are in, the greater chance the studio has of making a profit. These 'dud' films tend to not have midnight showings.

Those who are under 18 generally can't work the midnight showings due to child labor laws, thus the people needed to do ushering, sell popcorn and drinks, sell candy all have to be older, and that limits the pool of people to pick from. Some places those who are age 16 can work until one time, those up to 18 can work until another time - but generally if in school, labor laws stop workers from working at 2 or 3 am, which is what is needed to do run a midnight showing.