This article was originally posted on our old blog on Dec 18, 2010. It has been updated to reflect minor changes in since that time.
In July of 2005, the North Shore Music Theatre in Beverly, MA suffered a fire just 90 minutes after performances had ended for the day. Reports initially indicated that a fog machine under the stage, possibly accidentally left on, malfunctioned and started an electrical fire. The fog machine was later cleared, but “electrical fire” continues to be given as the cause (I could find no specific cause, nor even photos of the fire, published online). Despite a full, working sprinkler system, the fire continued under the stage, causing heat and smoke damage to the entire stage area. The resulting financial impact on the company is generally considered the starting point for the eventual failure of the company in June of 2009. Approximately 4000 subscriptions were never refunded.
As mentioned in previous posts, too often we assume that all the “other” fire safety devices, containment design, alarms, and suppression systems will take care of the problem. Here at OffStageJobs.com, we want to remind you that this is rarely the case.
Device and system failures contributing to the North Shore Music Theatre fire:
- Device: Electrical problem in a device or wiring.
- Device/system: Fire first triggered motion detector burglar alarm. Minutes later (after fire had grown even more), the fire alarm activated, triggering the sprinkler system.
- System: Sprinklers failed to extinguish fire at source, allowing heat damage to building and roof trussing.
- Device/system: Smoke vents in roof failed to open, requiring fire department personnel to cross heat damaged roof to force the vents open. Lack of vertical ventilation contributed to spread of fire, heat, and smoke in the theatre, and made it difficult for firefighters to see their way through the building and to the source of the fire.
- System: Despite working sprinkler system, fire was not extinguished by system, resulting in flames 15 to 20 feet high inside the 30 foot high space. Fire crews from ten towns, including the local department, hampered by the heavy smoke and intense heat, required an hour and a half to find and control the fire.
Damages were estimated at $3 million, including seating, stage lighting & audio, and musical instruments that had been in the theatre at the time. The venue did not reopen until November 1st, 2005.
Costs related to the fire, such as refunds for canceled shows, rescheduling shows, rebuilding costs, and loss of revenue during reconstructions brought the theatre into debt that it was unable to recover from. One year after its bankruptcy, closure, and sale of some of its facilities, North Shore Music Theatre, reopened in July of 2010 after being purchased by a private investor.
One of the reasons there are so many fire codes for theatres is to allow for redundancies. But we should never use these redundancies as an excuse to ignore a fire code. In this case, alarm and suppression systems failed to activate fast enough, and even when activated, failed to contain the fire. Venting systems failed to activate at all.
Follow the fire codes for your theatre, because the only true test of your theatre’s fire plans and systems is during a fire. If something you are relying on fails: by then it is too late, and the resulting damages may affect your theatre for years to come.
This article is part of our annual Theatre Fire Safety Month coverage.
More on this fire at: