No doubt this is a serious situation and over recent months, it’s presented itself in multiple contexts to me, so I took some time to write this article in response to this question:
“There’s so many new performers that aren’t safe and uninsured. It’s starting to hinder gigs cause the fire marshal is cracking down on all of us. What should I do?”
First I want to say that someone having insurance doesn’t make them safe, just like having a teaching certification doesn’t make you a good instructor, so focusing on the insurance part is a red herring that should be avoided, especially in these early years of our community because if we have safe protocols, we won’t need to call upon our insurance.
If you find yourself in this position, as I did a decade ago, your mission, should you choose to accept it, is to make friends with the fire marshal, act as a liaison between the fire department and the fire dancers, start educating fire performers about your local fire safety requirements, and, in as much as possible, differentiate yourself from the others who are not making comparable investments in the future of our community.
Here’s how I did that.
First, go spend time with the fire department. Think of it as an investment in the future of your business and art form. Stay there until you find an advocate who will talk to you about this. Make it clear you’re looking to change things because you’re “gravely” concerned about the impact newer artists are having on the community because of their lack of comprehension of the local protocols. Explain that this is your living, that you take it seriously and you want the community to thrive with safety in mind for a long time to come. If they have a natural tendency to think you are representing hooligans, something I’d say was my impression here in San Francisco when I started this, be clear with them that not everyone doing this is some rowdy punk. This means you must differentiate yourself in every way from the bad behaviors you see that concern you and, like them or not, the behaviors the fire department doesn’t like.
While in the process, tell your fire department you want to create a better procedure around permitting that helps ensure more artists are operating safely. I needed to do that because in SF, they didn’t have a good procedure when I went to the fire department to get permitting for the first show for which I sought a permit. They had no idea what their own requirements were at the time since so few people had gotten permits and I’m not 100% certain the NAFAA guidelines were as clear at that point since it was circa September of 2004. Even if they were, they certainly weren’t adopted yet in San Francisco. I actually helped the San Francisco Fire Department (SFFD) develop the permit paperwork and had some of the earliest on line documentation explaining the San Francisco permitting process — here you can see the original information and you can see the current permitting process here. I created the fire safety sheet document that has the information the SFFD wants and shortly thereafter, it became the fire safety sheet people had to submit and still do to this day even though I made the document and own it.
From a longer term industry perspective (think 15-20 years out from now) this puts you in the position of local expert/authority which is exactly what you want from the long term perspective. I couldn’t have predicted the benefits of being that person –they may be unseen right now but will be good later as this art form grows, which will happen unless we run out of fuel.
While in the conversation with the fire department, work with them, explain your concerns and how you get around them effectively in your experience as a performer. Explain your concerns in terms of the impact to the city, the public, the community and the artists. Reference other reliable sources to show you’ve done your research. Demonstrate your understanding of the NFPA codes as related to fire dancing, show how you integrate and work with the NAFAA suggested guidelines in your performances and have a clear understanding of how they all work with your troupe’s safety protocols.
If you truly want to see change, offer one free class to local artists (maybe even make it annual) where you explain the safety procedures required in your area. Let the fire department know you’re doing this because it demonstrates you’re going above and beyond what you need to do and shows, through action, your investment in this information being spread through the community in your area. If you can, get one of them to come and confirm everything you’re saying though if it’s anything like it is in SF, you’re dealing with unionized labor so that might be very unlikely. In the end, you’re looking to make yourself known as the liaison between the local spinning community and the local fire department.* Bonus: after your class, offer additional consulting for a fee — win-win for folks who don’t want to jump the hurdles and would rather hire you to help them.
Finally, and above all else, patiently, persistently and compassionately educate everyone so they are empowered.
Remember their insurance will be invalid if they aren’t following the NAFAA guidelines if they are using Specialty Insurance so that’s a relevant thing to know and they may not know it. Just because someone says, “I’m insured” neither means they know what they are supposed to do to be safe nor that they will follow that because you can pay for the insurance without following the guidelines. To that end, I would definitely not focus on the insurance part, but rather, the safety part.
Keep your eye on that prize because insurance will be irrelevant if everyone has appropriate safety protocols. Remember your mission when you get frustrated and keep asking the question: “what is my outcome?” Ultimately, remember why you’re doing it and what you hope to gain from it. You want to eat and you want to do what you love so there is significant reason to take the time to educate people. It may feel like a waste of time, but a little bit of work on the front end could save months of work after the fact trying to undo the damage caused by ignorance.
Also remember no matter what you do, some people will not care, will think they are above it, will think they don’t need to follow these rules, will think they can’t make a mistake and will not implement appropriate safety procedures either by your standard, by the NAFAA suggestions or the standards of the local fire department. It happens all the time. Try not to take this personally. Sometimes people will have a negative response, but I was recently pleasantly surprised when I called a local artist out at a jam for using tools that seemed unsafe and the artist actually took responsibility and thanked me for calling him out, so I have to advocate for speaking up and doing with the clarity that this is your standard and others are free to do as they want, though you hope they will have consideration for the community at large rather than operate without consideration for other’s whom they are impacting.
All you can do is educate as much as possible. If you’re hosting a class that educates people and you go to your local fire department, you’re doing what you can and at that point, you have to let it go when other’s behave in ways you deem unsafe.
Speak up and speak often to distance yourself from behaviors that you don’t want to encourage — tweet about it, blog about it and talk about it on Facebook. This gives you a written record of your long standing support for the guidelines, something that has actually helped me get permits after years of constant advocacy with the fire department.
In the end there are three things to do: educate those who will listen, differentiate yourself from those who would not care and be the change you want to see in the world by setting the best example of what to do.
*If you opt to go this route and become a liaison of sorts, you’re also now in a much more visible position where, like it or not, you will be watched. As an example of this, less than two months after finalizing the paperwork with the SFFD, I was featured in this SF Weekly article, Poi oh Poi. The day the article came out at 10:30 in the morning the SFFD was knocking at my office door asking me about my safety procedures. The means you will need to be more mindful to ensure you’re not doing things that call into question your commitment to the safety procedures, either from members of the community or from officials in the local fire department.