FIRE SAFETY
AND
CODE ISSUES
IN PUBLIC VENUES

Originally posted 3/03/04 - Updated 11/19/07
© 2004 - 2007 Peter P. Carli

This article is intended for anyone who owns and/or operates a public venue - theater, nightclub, restaurant, bar, meeting hall, hotel, convention center, or other entertainment or hospitality property; educational facility, house of worship, or other establishment where the general public gathers in large numbers - works for such a venue, or provides 3rd party subcontract services including security services, DJ and live entertainment, as well as others who are interested in the entertainment and hospitality businesses.

NOTE: While this article was originally written in 2004, fire safety and codes issues are a timeless subject that should be taken into consideration every time a venue is open for business and every time a show or event is planned. Safety never goes out of style. PPC - 11/19/2007.

As candlelight vigils were held last month for the 100 souls who perished in the Station nightclub fire (Warwick R.I.) last year, many of us in the restaurant, hotel, concert production, nightclub, sporting event, and theater businesses were asking ourselves the question, "What if that happened in my establishment or at my event?"

WHAT IF?

And that is a question that everyone in the hospitality and event businesses, from real estate owners to concert promoters and entertainers to venue management needs to ask themselves.

HISTORY: Other venue fires have taken higher tolls, including Chicago's infamous Iroquois Theater inferno in 1903, where roughly 600 people perished. But in the past quarter-century, the Station fire ranks as the 2nd worst - exceeded only by the flames which consumed 165 lives in Kentucky's Beverly Hills Supper Club fire of 1977. The Station tragedy was overall the 4th worst in entertainment fire casualty numbers in the United States, and the worst as far as number of deaths associated with a "rock & roll" type of event or establishment.

STATION NIGHTCLUB FIRE - VIDEO FOOTAGE

WARNING: THIS FOOTAGE GRAPHICALLY DETAILS HOW FIRE CAN QUICKLY ENGULF A BUILDING AND TAKE LIVES. NOT FOR THE FAINT OF HEART - VIEWER DISCRETION IS ADVISED.

While the loss of life at the Station nightclub was 1/6 of the death toll inside the Iroquois Theater, what made it a double tragedy is the fact that it was 100% preventable. Highly flamable shipping foam that was never intended to be used in construction lined the ceiling above the stage (used as makeshift soundproofing), and anything hot that might have come in contact with it could have potentially ignited it. That could have been anything from a par lamp to a cigarette butt hurled at the stage. Add in the fact that a fireworks display (which requires a hazmat license to transport) that should have never been used inside an enclosed space with such a low ceiling - you can see where this author's arguement is heading.

"We don't as a society take fire safety that seriously."
- David Lucht - director of fire safety studies, Worchester Polytechnic Institute
(quote from Billboard Magazine, Feb 28, 2004 page 14)

THE LEGALITIES: The fire generated a horde of catcalls nationwide for tougher fire safety codes, prompting some states to announce legislation to update regulations for public establishments. While a handful of other states have passed token legislation addressing the issue, only Rhode Island has enacted the sweeping changes called for by safety experts, according to reports in entertainment trade journals and public news sources.

For example: The State of Virginia impaneled a special task force to write up new codes. But instead of mandating sprinkler systems or regulating indoor fireworks, the panel simply called for "tougher enforcement measures", whatever those enforcement measures might be. To make the Virginia panel's findings even more questionable, most of their recommendations applied to establishments with capacities in excess of 300 people, so clubs like the Station wouldn't have been included anyway.

MY CONCERNS: 100 years has passed since the Iroquois Theater fire, yet fire safety standards for entertainment venues are still lacking in uniformity across the country and are unevenly enforced from locality to locality. What I fear will happen is that new safety codes, if and when they are enacted, will be inconsistent and unevenly enforced between jurisdictions. To make matters even worse, a traveling music show or rock act might find themselves unable to stage their show in certain venues due to being in violation of a local jurisdiction's specific codes ordinance, in spite of the possibility that their show may have been in compliance with safety regulations in other localities. Also, there will likely be instances where enforcement is needed but won't happen due to lax ordinances and enforcement and the local level.

It may take a decade or more for individual states to update their codes and even longer for venues to come into compliance with those codes. In the meantime, many lives will be put at unnecessary risk while touring shows will be additionally burdened by the necessity of compliance with safety rules that may vary unwieldily from venue to venue.


WHAT TO DO: So what are you going to do in the meantime to insure that your establishment, concert, or event is safe from fire and other hazards? Here is a brief list of suggestions as to where to start.

  1. Contact your local building inspector or fire department and make sure you have all the requisite permits to operate your nightclub, restaurant, theater, rave party, live event, conference, praise & worship service, or other public venue or gathering. If not, make arrangements to get the necessary permits as fast as possible, and make sure you understand what requirements must be met in order to operate your facility or event safely and legally. You don't want a fire, police, or codes official shutting your show down due to lack of paperwork. You may need your premises inspected by an insurance underwriter and/or government official before permits are issued in some localities.

  2. Make sure you carry liability insurance of a sufficient amount to cover your ass incase you get sued for something, regardless of whether or not you are at fault. Anyone can be sued, including independent entertainers, servers, and security staff for things that happen in an establishment or at an event where they are working or performing. Just because you may or may not own the real estate or be the party host, if an incident happens and you are involved in some capacity, you could be in the loop when it comes to litigation, and it's best that you prepare for the potential of such litigation if you work in 'da biz. ---- An insurance broker or agent can help you determine how much coverage you need. You may want to also consider business insurance as well to cover your assets (no pun intended!), whether it's real estate, bar equipment, furniture, sound & lighting equipment, vehicles, band instruments, etc.

  3. Make sure all fire suppression devices (including but not limited to hand-held extinguishers) in your place of business are in good working order. If you are not sure as to how to inspect your fire safety equipment, your local building codes department, fire department, or insurance company's underwriting inspector can help you with it. Some jurisdictions and insurance underwriters require fire suppression equipment be installed in public venues and be certified annually and tagged accordingly. It is also important that your employees understand how to use these devices and in what situations they are to be used.

  4. Have an adequate number of security personnel working during hours of operation. According to guidelines on the NFPA website, for every 250 patrons in your establishment, a "crowd manager" (my terms are "security" and "bouncer") should be on duty. From my experience in running shows, I would up that number to one crowd manager or security person per 100 to 150 patrons, depending on the type of show. Better to have an extra security person than be shorthanded in an emergency.

  5. Have a fire emergency plan prepared, including how to direct event patrons out of the venue in an orderly fashion. For such a plan to be useful it is important for your servers, security personnel, and show techs to be familiar with it. Your local fire department or building inspector can help you prepare such plans. Some jurisdictions offer expert training for your employees on premises, covering subjects from managing crowd panic to handling medical emergencies. If available, taking advantage of public sector safety assistance is a smart idea.

  6. Keep all egresses (ie: exit doors) free and clear of tables and chairs, audio/visual equipment, scenery, or other obstacles that may imped the flow of patrons out of your venue in an emergency (I've heard of shows being shut down because of speaker boxes sitting in locations which the local fire inspector found unacceptable).

  7. Make sure that structural holes, such as in walls, ceilings, or floors, which are not functional be filled or covered over. Some idiot might decide to use it as an ashtray, and in turn start a fire inside the wall.

  8. Make sure that all electrical fixtures are in good shape, and replace those that aren't. Not only can a defective electrical device be a fire hazard, it can be a shock hazard as well (this author knows from experience!)

DISCLAIMER: This article is for reference purposes only and is not a substitute for professional advice specific to your venue, show, or business. Please consult your local building codes office for more fire safety information as well as your local occupancy licensing requirements.

This article © 2004 Radiation Room - deep linking is permitted as long as this article does not appear within a frame and proper credit attribution and authorship appears on the referring page. All other rights reserved.

Partial Bibliography - Articles and threads appearing in the following sources during the past year:

  • National Fire Prevention Association website
  • Billboard Magazine (print magazine)
  • Pro Sound News (print magazine)
  • MSNBC.com (website)
  • Salon.com (website)
  • pro-audio@pgm.com (public maillist)
  • backroom@recordist.com (public maillist)
  • Northeastern Rave Promotors Discussion Group (private maillist)
  • ampex@recordist.com (public maillist)
  • New York Times (print newspaper)
  • Baltimore Sun (print newspaper)
  • other sources too numerous to credit