Fire Safety: It’s always a series of problems, not just one.

This article was originally posted on our old blog Dec. 14, 2010.
It has been updated to reflect changes that have occurred since then.

Many times I hear the complaint that the fire codes “go overboard” in all their requirements.  This is also frequently used as an excuse for breaking a fire code.  “Well, if there is a fire the ____ will still be there to deal with it.”

  • Someone will take care of it with an extinguisher.
  • The sprinklers will kick in.
  • The other exit isn’t that far away.
  • We’ll unblock the door after each show.
  • The alarm will only be off for a little while.
  • The hose is for the fireman, and they’ll have tools to get to it.
  • The fire department doesn’t even use those pre-installed hoses anymore.
  • The only people back here will know not to go that way.
  • We need to tape the door latches because the actors can’t work the handle fast enough. It’s just one door.
  • A fire won’t get this far.
  • It’s only for tech.
  • It’s only for load-in/load-out.
  • It’s only for an hour or so.
  • It’s only for this scene.
  • There are people everywhere, so they will notice a fire before it becomes a problem.
  • The audience will find the exits.
  • We’ll uncover the signs if there is an emergency.
  • They’ll just turn around and go the other way.
  • The ushers will direct the audience to safety.
  • Don’t worry about it; it’s not your problem.
  • I’ll take responsibility if there is a problem.

The problem with all of the above is that they assume that just because they have affected safety thing A, B C and D will still work just fine. What this assumption forgets is: if there is a fire, something has already not worked correctly, because the fire was able to start.

Every major theatre fire, and most minor ones, had multiple failures or circumvention of existing safety devices and laws.  From theatre fires 100 years ago to fires in the last 10 years, each one had more than one safety plan/item being ignored or blocked before the fire even started. What’s more, too often it is assumed that the local laws and existing emergency plans are not flawed.  We are assuming everything else will work, when quite frequently it doesn’t.

Here is a report of just one recent theatre fire: (emphasis added)

In the case of the Sight and Sound fire the following factors contributed to the loss:

1. Fire department notification was delayed because the alarm system did not activate. The alarm company received no signal for an alarm at the theater1.

2. The two-hour fire-resistance-rated assembly in the storage area beneath the stage was damaged during the stage floor renovation, leaving the structural members unprotected from the ensuing fire.

3. Even though the importance of water supply was known by the property owners (lack of it was cited as a reason for not installing sprinklers), the pond initially provided to supply water for fire suppression was subsequently eliminated to make room for a large addition. The recommended access road to the alternate water supply pond was not built because the owner of that land would not allow the construction. With no access road to the off-site pond, fire apparatus became stuck in the mud and had to be towed. This also limited access for additional units trying to establish water supply.

4. The props assembly and maintenance buildings were connected to the backwall of the theaterstage with a 40 foot by 40 foot hallway which had no fire separation door. The State Fire and Panic Code, Subsection 51.2 (see Appendix B) requires that when public assembly occupancies share a structure with other occupancies, the other structure will be separated with fire walls or be governed by the most restrictive limitations. The lack of sprinklers and fire separations contributed to fire extension and damage to the prop assembly and maintenance buildings.

5. The representatives from the State Department of Labor and Industry did not apparently understand how a two hour fire resistance rating should be applied per the particular features of a specific structure. The level of protection is variable depending upon many factors that affect the rate and extension of heat and flame. The two hour rating does not guarantee two hours of fire resistance for buildings. Rather, the rating relates to a laboratory test conducted using a controlled time temperature curve where an assembly is exposed to increasing heat levels until 1,850° F is reached at two hours2. In real fire situations, fire temperatures can reach 1,850° F in minutes, not hours.

Misunderstanding of the fire resistance rating resulted in a mistaken justification for waiving the required storage room sprinkler system. Storage rooms often have high fuel loads which, when involved in fire, produce enough heat to quickly overwhelm the fire resistant design intended to contain the fire within a compartmentalized area. The code recognizes storage areas in public assembly occupancies as potential fire hazard areas that require dynamic protection features to extinguish or contain a fire.

The two hour fire resistance assembly test is consistent with the combustion of ordinary Class A materials capable of heat generation at 8,000 BTUs per pound. The under-stage storage area in the theater held props constructed of plastic resin glass fibers, polystyrene foam, and plastics that typically produce heat generation rates of 16,000 BTUs per pound, twice the rate of ordinary combustibles. In addition, the canvas, cloth, and wood used in the props had high surface area to mass ratios conducive to rapid flame spread. The heavy fuel load in this facility would be considered by most life safety and fire codes to be hazardous storage, thus requiring sprinkler protection.

6. The stage floor renovations contributed to the overstocked storage room and heavy fuel load. The theater routinely produced four separate seasonal productions throughout the year. Normally, three productions were in storage while one remained on stage. Due to the stage floor construction, the props and scenery for the fourth production also had to be crowded into the under-stage storage area. This further increased the fuel load and impeded the advancement of hose lines by firefighters.

7. The inability to efficiently ventilate smoke from the theater further complicated the efforts of firefighters to find the vertical fire travel in the auditorium. The inability to effectively relieve the heat vertically through the roof allowed the intense thermal effects to travel horizontally across the underside of the roof, causing more damage to the steel structure and the subsequent roof collapse. The automatic rooftop ventilation originally suggested would have mitigated the heat and smoke extension dramatically.

8. Although there were six civilians who suffered minor injuries, the fire suppression operation was conducted without firefighter injury. This fire presented a significant potential for firefighter injuries during the interior fire attack phase and from the subsequent roof collapse. The fireground command officers recognized the imminent potential for building collapse, and removed personnel from the structure. They then used defensive tactics and conducted operations from the exterior.

9. The theater auditorium was designed to allow for the evacuation of 1,400 occupants through the 26 exit doors without steps. The exiting rate of 60 people per minute is based upon healthy, ambulatory people3. The Sight and Sound Theater productions were family programs targeting young children and elderly audiences. As much as 60 percent of the typical audiences consisted of elderly individuals or children who may have required exiting assistance. Many of the elderly who usually attended used wheel chairs. These circumstances almost certainly would have delayed exiting to a rate of fewer than 60 people per minute had the fire occurred while the theater was occupied. Also, smoke and the products of combustion probably would have communicated into the auditorium, contributing to additional exiting problems.

1 USFA incident reviewers were not allowed to examine the system.

2 NFPA Fire Protection Handbook, section 5, pg. 64

3 NFPA Fire Protection Handbook, section 6, pg. 9

22 U.S. Fire Administration/Technical Report Series

In addition, the area where this fire started had one of it’s fire doors blocked open by a fire extinguisher, so persons going in and out to store props wouldn’t have to keep opening the door.  Those who discovered the fire had entered through a different door, and when their attempts to extinguish the fire failed, they closed the door they had entered thinking it would at least contain the fire, never knowing that the other door was blocked open and providing fresh oxygen to the room.

In every instance, one simple safety rule was ignored on the assumption that others weren’t also being ignored.  The problem is: once a fire starts, all those problems work together to create one huge problem.

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