Warehouse Party Safety: What to Watch Out For & How to Prepare

Oakland Warehouse Fire
Tayfun Coskun/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images

Firefighters and medics are seen near the site of a warehouse fire that has claimed the lives of at least thirty-six people on Dec. 5, 2016 in Oakland, Calif. 

Event safety experts weigh in.

Last Friday (Dec. 2), tragedy struck Oakland, Calif.’s dance music and artist community when a fire broke out during a 100% Silk party at a warehouse known locally as the Ghost Ship. To date, 36 people have been killed, including Cash Askew, of Bay Area dream-pop duo Them Are Us Too; and Chelsea Faith Dolan, aka DJ/producer Cherushii, who was performing. Others are still missing, and Oakland Fire Department spokesperson Chief Teresa DeLoach Reed warned earlier this week that the number of confirmed fatalities could still increase. The cause of the fire is still under investigation, but a swirl of questions has arisen about the safety of the building, not zoned as an event or residential space.

Warehouse parties and events held at DIY or unlicensed venues are deeply embedded into the culture of electronic music and have been since the 1970s. On any given weekend, there are a handful of shows whose location on a Facebook event page is listed only as “private” or to-be-announced the night of. For many, events at alternative locations like these are a way to avoid the crowds, and in California cities like Oakland, subvert the 2 am curfews of licensed clubs in favor of dancing (and drinking) until sunrise. As news of the Ghost Ship fire has emerged, a common sentiment has scattered across social media among fans of underground dance music nationwide: “It could have been any one of us.”

The grieving process is just beginning for the victims’ families and friends, let alone for the Bay Area music and arts communities, but even before we know exactly what happened in Oakland, there are measures everyone can take to increase safety at similar venues and events. While there are some resources for promoters on venue harm reduction, Billboard Dance spoke to several event experts to find out what ordinary music fans can do to empower themselves and ensure their own safety without withdrawing from the underground music scene.

Red Flags:

1. Dimmed, blocked, or non-existent exit signs: Exit signs are a common determinate of a space’s safety status, says Steven Adelman, vice president of the Event Safety Alliance, “because everyone knows what they look like. There are ANSI (American National Standard Institute) standards about the conspicuousness and visibility of exit signs. That bland, sans-serif font is very visible from a distance, so even in darkness, and even when there’s smoke, you can still perceive that it’s an exit sign.” Ideally, he says, venues should have multiple exits on opposite sides of the space in the event that a threat renders one exit unusable. The lack of well-lit exit signs—or the absence of exit signs at all—presents a clear danger.

2. Inaccessible or cluttered doorways: Beneath well-lit exit signs should be an accessible path that will allow large groups of people to enter and leave the space in a timely fashion. If not, watch out. “There can’t be stuff put in the way: furniture, road cases, or general debris,” says Adelman. Even people should be cleared from exit areas. Think about that the next time a bouncer asks you to move out of the way.

3. Overcrowding: You know those times you're standing in line outside a club that's at capacity, desperately waiting to get in? It really is for your own safety. "My biggest concern, particularly at underground venues, is when I can't navigate a space easily,” says Mitchell Gomez, National Outreach Director of DanceSafe. “If a venue is filled with people and art, and it's hard to move from one end to the other under normal circumstances, it will be virtually impossible to do so in an emergency.”

4. Lack of emergency response tools such as smoke detectors, sprinklers, and fire extinguishers: All of these instruments are crucial to detecting and combating a fire, so to not have them puts everyone in the venue at risk. Ideally, they should all be tested regularly and functional as well. But as Adelman notes, the only way to know if the sprinklers and smoke detectors work is either to activate the sprinkler, thus getting everything wet, or to push the button on the detector, setting off a loud beep. Patrons can really only know if these tools work in the moment they’re called into action. This one is definitely the venue's job to maintain, but as a fan, you can always do a spot check to see if the place you're in at least has the right equipment.

Be Prepared:

1. Designate a meeting space: “Whenever you go into a big public space, you should have a designated meeting spot [for your friends], and a backup meeting spot as well,” suggests Adelman. “People do get separated, and even in the age where nearly everyone who can breathe carries a cell phone, you can’t count on signals to always be clear and effective—on the contrary, cell service becomes impaired when you have a lot of people all trying to use their phones at the same time. A designated meeting space is just a good old-fashioned precaution.”

2. Know your exit plan: Once inside the space, quickly familiarize yourself with it and make note of the closest escape routes in the event of an emergency. “Answer the question, ‘How do I get out?’" says Russ Simons, managing partner of Venue Solutions Group. If the answer is unclear, ask venue staff.

3. Practice situational awareness: Be alert of your surroundings. Simons suggests asking yourself questions such as, “What is going on in the space? What is the energy? How are the people occupying the space acting? Am I comfortable, or is there some small nagging thoughts the back of my mind that something may not be right?” If something doesn't feel right, talk about it with your crew or with people working the party. Figure out what's going on.

4. Trust your instincts: “If you feel uncomfortable, move towards the exit or out of the mass of attendees until you can determine that there is no cause for alarm,” says Simons. If the situation still feels weird, the best course of action may be to leave altogether.

While attendees assume the risk of attending events and unlicensed venues, Gomez and Adelman assert that the onus is also on promoters to ensure patrons’ safety. “If you invite people to a space that you control, they become your business, your invitees, and you have to provide reasonably safe premises to engage in the activity for which you invited them,” says Adelman. “That’s a universally applicable legal proposition.” Adds Gomez, “I would argue that promoters in unlicensed venues have even more of a responsibility than promoters in licensed venues do, specifically because of the nature of these spaces.”

In the aftermath of tragedy, Adelman says, situations such as the Oakland fire offer an opportunity for cities to place more focus on small, lesser-resourced venues, many of which are where today’s big-name artists get their start. “Life safety is something that everyone should be paying attention to at every venue, because as we are reminded, tragedies even at smaller, unregistered entertainment spaces can do a lot of damage to a lot of people.” 

To donate to the official fund benefiting those affected by the fire, head to