At the end of the player's gaze, there stands a dark, prison-like room with no escape way. Not knowing what to do, the player looks around for the hidden pieces of evidence that give hints about the exit. As the ticking sound of the clock gets louder, the players feel nervous about the situation of not making their way out of the room. People may be like Sherlock Holmes, enjoying the thrill while they figure out the clues for the grand escape. Yet, what if people fail to escape despite perceiving the imminent peril leading to death? What if people did know the way out, but were just not able to make a move?
Escape room is an experimental game which requires people to get out of a particular-themed room within a time limit. It is a brain teaser that quenches the intellect of people and has now become a Korean trend. The demand for escape rooms in Korea is steadily increasing. Ticketmonster (Tmon)—a social commerce site in Korea—has shown an 80 percent rise in the number of customers wanting to experience the escape room in 2017.
However, along with the increase of escape rooms and their demands, safety concerns are also constantly brought up, haunting the consumers. On January 4, there was a big fire accident in an escape room at Koszalin, Northern Poland, leaving five teenagers dead and a 26-year-old man severely burned. State Fire Service (SFS), the Polish fire department, states that the escape room lacked safety measures. Since the room was located at a re-modeled residence, not at a shopping arcade, it was much harder to enforce governmental regulations and further install safety devices such as fire extinguishers. Many escape rooms in Korea are also lacking these emergency systems.
Systematic Problem—Tangled with Complexity
Escape rooms in Korea mainly combine both digital and analog locking systems. Regardless of the different combination of systems they use, the current locking system in Korean escape rooms equally has fatal breaches. Mystery.ENT, a sensor device manufacturing company that supports six escape room franchises and a launcher of escape room—Mystery Room Escape, explains the devices they use. Sensor systems consist of commonly-used materials such as Integrated Circuit (IC) or LED lights. Neither reinforced nor customized materials were used for the systems, implying that these devices are easily deformed and brittle.
Furthermore, most of the escape rooms only possess an interlocked system. There are no direct paths or shortcuts to the exit, meaning that players need to solve all the mysteries and locks one by one to reach the exit. One of the articles from the escape room "Sherlock" states that "Every room has individual puzzle sequences and if resorting to an expedient for quicker escape, the player might disrupt the storyline and the system." In regards to this problem, Professor Lee Dong Kyung (Fire and Disaster Protection Engineering, Woosong University) insisted that, despite the numerous locks inside the room, there should always be the main lock for a direct way to an emergency exit.
To deepen the concerns, the Korean government is not showing any significant movements to impose better safety measures. On May 26, 2017, the Ministry of Public Safety and Security (MPSS) did address that they will establish a corresponding department for escape room safety. As of yet, no progress has been made and breaches still remain.
The bigger problem lies in the fact that escape rooms are not protected under the safety law. This is because escape rooms are not regarded as a multi-use facility in the current law. According to the Enforcement Decree of the Multi-use Business Act, a multi-use facility is a facility possessing a high risk of property and physical damage when a disaster, such as a fire, occurs. Related facilities are legally protected by national and local governments, under article 3 of this special law. Even though the escape room contains features of multi-use facilities, it is not protected. This results in a higher exposure to danger.
Currently, escape rooms are only under the registration system. To elaborate, the facilities could be easily registered by an entrepreneur and registered facilities are not under any regulation acts. Concerning this condition, Professor Lee stated, "Due to the lack of safety regulation laws of escape rooms, most of the business owners tend to save money by not installing emergency exit facilities." This means that entrepreneurs are not obligated to take safety measures. Professor Lee continued, “This situation leads to a higher possibility of the business owner’s continuous negligence about safety measures, not taking action before a significant accident occurs.”
Safety Measures Rising
Yet, a silver lining is shown from the nation. The National Fire Agency (NFA) held a meeting with the seven individual representatives of the escape room franchise. NFA has presented their willingness to amend the law to categorize escape rooms as a multi-use facility and to hold regular fire drills and safety checks beforehand. Moreover, they encouraged the representatives to install sprinklers and secure the space for exits regardless of the related law, implying that the nation is finally recognizing the situation’s gravity.
Escape rooms in the United States (U.S.) officially use those by applying an emergency release button since 2016. The button consists of electromagnetic devices and they only work when electricity is on. This means when an emergency situation occurs—when all the electrical systems shut down—those devices will go off and open the gateway. In 2017, the U.S. National Fire Protection Association (NFPA) stated it is illegal for escape rooms to be unequipped with any direct emergency exit. Putting a similar policy on the Korean government could be a suitable measure to resolve the problem of a non-direct path in escape rooms.
"For one major accident, there have been 29 minor accidents and 300 signs beforehand," states Heinrich's Law, a statement based on the real statistic of accidents. To prove this point, the major accident in Poland occurred after the accumulation of small incidents. Just because Korea did not experience a big safety accident until now, it does not mean Korea would remain safe from those incidents forever. Without further safety assurances, Korea will be approaching the inevitable outcome.