Wednesday, March 19, 2014

Slates and Safety for Sarah

It's been awhile since I've posted here. It's not that I haven't written blog posts, just that none of them seemed appropriate. Most of them seemed angry - angry about an accident I was no where near involving people I do not know in an industry I left more than thirteen years ago, but angry nonetheless. Warning - this is a long post, but I hope it helps a conversation I hope has already started at every level in TV, Movie and Video Game production there is.

If you follow the Entertainment Industry at all, you have probably heard the name Sarah Jones by now, or you saw several Oscar Recipients wearing black ribbons on their lapels, or you saw the small card at the bottom of the screen right after the Memorial segment as they moved to commercial. That card was for a young camera assistant named Sarah Jones who was killed on set during a completely avoidable accident the week before.

So, if I haven't been on a set since 1999 when I was one of the "Grownups," not involved in the Industry at all since 2001, and I didn't know Sarah Jones, why am I upset and angry by her death? Because it was preventable. Absolutely, positively preventable. But the film was low budget, guerilla filming is a thing, and Camera Assistants, especially 2nd Camera Assistants trying to make a name for themselves, don't always feel as though they can raise their hands and say "This isn't safe." They feel that way for good reason.

I first ran into safety issues on the set of "Dead @ 21." D@21 was my very first paid set experience, and I was thrilled. A few weeks before filming started, I'd been featured in a brand new section of the LA Times talking about how to break into your dream job. I had several mentors in the office, friends who would always come by to say hi and throw a smile my way. As an office PA, specifically Assistant to the Executive Producer, I had an assistant for awhile. I was working in the MTV offices and got to meet some pretty cool people. All in all, it was a great gig even if the pay was incredibly low.

I was brought on set in multiple jobs. I was a set PA, a stand in, an Extra, and I was also First Aid - my one and only IMDB credit. 

I have been doing first aid since I was 8 or 9 and CPR since I was first legally allowed to be certified, but that does not make me a trained set medic, then or now. However, due to some film delays and budgetary concerns, they gave me, a PA, an extra $100 for the week to be the set medic, and the only set medic, on an action adventure show that was relatively heavy on stunts like jumping off buildings and crashing through plate glass. I honestly did not feel as though I could say no for a variety of reasons. Luckily the only injury was the star's face being cut to ribbons when he jumped through the glass door - the candy glass wasn't big enough so they decided last minute to get the shot and have the star jump through the door as it was. It was cheaper to replace the store's door than to delay a day, get new candy glass and reshoot the next night. No one raised a red flag.

Fast forward to 2002, my first weeks at the US Postal Service. I worked with a team that was dedicated to ensuring that the Transformation Plan, the first since 1972 or so, actually succeeded. One of my jobs on that team was to work with the HR department to implement their plans, including and especially new safety plans. They had recently created a department dedicated to Health and Safety and needed to get the word out to the entire organization about new policies. Since I have never forgotten about the safety nightmare on "Dead @ 21" I was especially interested in how to keep approximately 1M employees safe in an age of anthrax and pipe bombs in mail boxes. I learned a great deal from them, and I think that the Entertainment Industry that employes so many people in so many positions, both in offices and on sets around the world, could learn a great deal from them.

But, I am one of those people who can't just sit around hoping someone else comes up with the ideas. I tend to create ideas - some of which may work, and some of which may not. These ideas are just a few of the thoughts I have had in the weeks since the accident. I know they won't bring Sarah back, and that the odds I will ever have to live with them are small as I am currently not on sets of any form, but maybe these thoughts may help keep someone else alive. So, here we go!

First let me say, I know the First AD (Assistant Director) is responsible for Set safety. I say supposed to be because back in 1993, after the rule was enacted, I do not remember a single safety walk through or daily safety meeting. I don't remember the AD/1st AD taking on the responsibility of Set Safety in any form. I have read that this is starting up again, and that's good! But, I wonder if it's enough. I'll talk about this idea more in a bit. 

I want to take this one step at a time starting with the script as that's where all TV shows and movies start - as an idea in someone's head, someone like me. We writers know so many ways to kill you, flip you in a car, throw you off of a building, through a plate glass window, onto a train. We are limited only by our imaginations - and it should stay that way. That said, everyone working on putting our really warped creativity onscreen should know what they are getting into before they start filming. And so we have a...

1) Safety Rating - Every script should have a basic Safety Rating (SR) based on everything from locations to stunts to number and type of lights to time of day to weather etc. In order to get that SR, the script in question should be reviewed by an independent agency, perhaps a new Safety Guild or a new department within the WGA, and should not affect insurance costs. (I know they probably will, but I can dream, right?) The reason for an independent agency review is so no one can artificially rachet down an SR in order to keep insurance costs, and therefore production costs down. The SR should also include a recommended number of Safety Professional (SPs) required for the production. Onto #2, Safety Personnel.

2) Every certified set should have a Safety Manager and Crew. The size of the crew should be dependent upon the size of the production and the Safety Rating of the production. (More on Safety Ratings in a second.) This should be a department, just like Lighting or Sound or Make-Up, with it's own budget line and responsibilities. The Manager should come onto the production at the same time as the Production Office, in other words EARLY, so they can judge what each day of production will need as far as safety. The Safety Manager should also be at the same budgetary line as the Production Manager in the office and the AD on set. This is a position that will need to be in both places. 

3)  Every member of the Safety Department (SD) should be trained in basic safety and first aid. Everything from checking knots to putting on band aids and beyond.  

4) Every morning of production the SD should hold a Safety Meeting. Department heads, staff, crew and cast who are on set that day will be required to attend. These Safety Meetings can be held for each individual camera team if more than one team is going to be filming in different locations they can meet at their individual location rather than a central location. (Thus the reason that the meeting does not have to be lead by the Safety Manager.) **Note - I know this is supposed to be done daily and has been required since the 1970s, but it is obviously being glossed over. Perhaps a Safety Manager position, rather than an AD, may make cast, crew and grownups give the meeting the due it requires to keep everyone on set safe. Call it the Jones or the Sarah - whatever you need to do to make people pay attention during this meeting. They also need to participate - Talk, Squawk or Walk (Tell someone you don't feel something is safe. Talk louder and higher up (Squawk) the chain if nothing is done. Walk straight to your union rep and off the set if you have to until the safety concern is addressed. Odds are, any production worth being on will make sure something happens at Talk or Squawk.)

5) All OSHA requirements need to be met every single day. The Safety Department needs to be responsible for this and needs to be the safe place cast and crew can turn to if there are any safety concerns or issues. Annonymous email forms if necessary. Reports should be compiled so that if there is an OSHA review/audit the reports can be given over to help them with the review.

6) While movies and TV shows shot on location should each have their own Safety Department, studio lots should be able to provide a Safety Department as a service to anyone filming on the lot. So, for example, the TV show "Friends" shot on the Warner Bros. Ranch back in the 1990s. (Worked at WBOnline in the late 1990s so this one is familiar.) Instead of having to hire their own Safety Department, the Production would be assigned a Safety Manager from the WB Safety Department who would then hire a Safety Crew for the show. One Safety Manager may have more than one show that they are responsible for - "Friends," "Suddenly Susan," and "ER" for example, with Coordinators for each show. 

7) If a TV show or Movie is primarily a location driven show, but is being primarily produced/paid for by a studio such as Universal or Warner Bros. (for example "Godzilla" or "Unbroken") then the production can use the studio's Safety Department for their requirements, but should not be required to.

8) Any Studio with a certified Safety Department, Safety Strategic Plan and quarterly Safety Training for all employees can get reduced rates for Production Insurance. (Yes, I know this will involve serious negotiation with the insurance industry, and that the insurance industry HATES anything that has risk, but HEY - it's better to be safe than sorry. I think they'd agree if it means they have to pay out less in the long run.)

9) If you are on set, you agree to abide by anything the Safety Department says as far as Safety or risk being asked to leave the set. I don't care who you are from the director to the actors down to the PAs. If it involves safety and you don't abide by the Safety Department's rules/guidelines you risk yourself and others. 

10) Safety Department, Stunts and Special Effects are best buds. End of story. They may be best buds who disagree sometimes, but they are best buds. This also means that the Safety Department relies upon Stunts and SFX to know their departments inside and out and to give them advice on what to monitor. Stunts and SFX can matrix a member of their crew to the Safety Department, while the Safety Department will interact directly with all other departments.

11) A "Post Mortem" will be held with all department heads after filming is wrapped on an episode, season, location, film, etc. to assess what worked, what didn't and what would work better in the future. A report is filed with the Safety Guild for future reference and continuing education. Any major safety issues should also be reported for the same reasons. Major risks on a production should be reported and should potentially affect the organization's or individual's Safety Rating with the Safety Guild in the future.

I spent my 20s in Entertainment, my 30s at the USPS and now, in the beginning of my 40s, as an author and SAH mom. I truly believe in safety first, strategic planning (which is essentially safety first), and contingency plans. 

I am putting these ideas out there as a jumping off point - a place where people can start discussing their ideas for how to make sets safer. If you think about it, many of these ideas should already be in place, and in some departments they are. The problem is when the departments don't have a central point of communication and someone on set who's job it is to stand up and say "No" with authority. 

So, take these ideas. Share them around. Discuss them, play with them, work with them. Heck, change the name to the Bacon Department in honor of Sarah - I don't care. I only care that I never see another article about another 27 year-old killed doing something unsafe because it would make a great shot. And since I've opened my big fat mouth, I'm more than happy stay involved in the conversation.

And now, my slate. I may not be on a set anymore, but I still think of Sarah - obviously if I am writing a really long blog post about set safety. So this is a slate from a writer, hopefully a writer of scripts that are actually filmed one day. 

If you are on a set, considering being on a set, or dreaming of being on a set remember Sarah and Safety First. Low budget is great. Ignoring safety because of budget constraints is not. I hope improved safety is Sarah Jones' legacy.

Thank you for taking the time to read this far. It's been a lot of words, hopefully they were constructive words. Hopefully I will hear one day about a brand new budget line in production budgets, or a new process scripts have to go through before being registered with WGA to assess script safety. That would be cool.

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