Canadian Consulting Engineer

Nightclub Fires I

May 1, 2004
By Demir Delen, P.Eng.

For nightclubs, February 2003 was a deadly month in the U.S. More than 200 people died and an equal number of people were injured as a result of fires in both Chicago's E2 nightclub and the Station nightclub in West Warwick, Rhode Island.

For nightclubs, February 2003 was a deadly month in the U.S. More than 200 people died and an equal number of people were injured as a result of fires in both Chicago’s E2 nightclub and the Station nightclub in West Warwick, Rhode Island.

Several factors have been identified as contributing to the tragedy in the Rhode Island nightclub fire: foam plastic soundproofing on the walls, a wood frame building, lack of sprinklers and a high occupant load with insufficient exits and untrained staff. Individually, each of these factors presented a danger; together they had a combined effect that resulted in a tragedy.

There have been four previous nightclub fires with a large number of fatalities in the U.S. that provided the impetus for changes in the building and fire codes in both the U.S. and Canada, especially regarding assembly occupancies:

Rhythm Club Dance Hall, April 1940 — 207 dead

Coconut Grove Nightclub, November 1942 — 492 dead

Beverley Hills Supper Club, May 1977 — 164 dead

Happy Land Social Club, May 1990 — 87 dead

When all these fires are analyzed, we find factors common to all of them contributed to the large number of fatalities: their interior finish materials, large occupant loads relative to exit capacity, blocked exits and lack of sprinklers.

Factors that distinguish nightclubs from other assembly venues are loud music, flashing lights, low lighting levels, large crowds and alcohol. Let’s analyze what we now know regarding the construction and features of the Station nightclub in terms of how they would fare under the National Building Code of Canada (NBC).

Under the NBC, a nightclub is permitted in a combustible, single-storey building, as was the Station nightclub. For example, the building can be 2,000 square metres if it faces two streets. The building is not required to be sprinklered. The use of foamed plastic for soundproofing or insulation is also permitted in such combustible construction, but it must be protected by sheet metal, plaster or particle board. Foamed plastic cannot be exposed; it has a very high flame spread rating and smoke developed classification. The foamed plastic soundproofing at the Station nightclub was exposed, which contributed to the fast flame and smoke spread.

The most critical element, and also the most difficult to control, is the number of people in these crowded venues relative to the exit capacity. The occupant loads are generally calculated using the factors in the code. For locations like nightclubs, the factors range from 1.2 m2 per person where people dine and consume alcohol, to 0.4 m2 per person for standing space. But an exit system calculated using the 1.2 m2 per person factor based on having non-fixed tables and chairs, may not be sufficient when subsequently the tables and chairs are removed and the space becomes a standing space. There are clubs that start the evening as a restaurant and end up as a music lounge later, after the tables and chairs are removed. The occupant load may increase threefold from what was approved, yet the exit capacity remains the same.

The main concern in nightclubs and similar places is the enforcement of the provisions of the fire code rather than construction requirements under the building codes. Even though a building or an area leased for a nightclub may comply with all the requirements of the applicable building code, how it is used later makes a big difference with respect to fire safety. A building inspector does not have any reason or authority to inspect a nightclub after the final occupancy is cleared at the end of construction. Any violations when the building or leased area is occupied and in use fall under the fire code.

The National Fire Code of Canada prohibits the storage of combustible materials in stairways and other means of egress, yet one often observes cardboard boxes for beer or other drinks being stored in such locations, creating a fire hazard and blocking exits. The fire code also states that exits and access to exits must be maintained free of obstructions. In many nightclubs one sees tables, chairs and curtains blocking the access to exits, or coat checks and ticket booths blocking exits. These are not design and construction issues that are addressed in the building code, but rather use and occupancy problems under the fire code.

Emergency planning is required for all assembly buildings in the fire code. The code requires that a fire safety plan be prepared for such occupancies and this must be approved by the chief fire official. The fire safety plan would include the appointment and organization of designated supervisory staff to carry out fire safety duties as well as training in their responsibilities for fire safety. In many cases, due to the frequent change of staff in nightclubs, the training is neglected and the fire safety plan is not updated. As a result, there may not be any trained personnel to coordinate emergency procedures for evacuating occupants or for controlling and extinguishing a fire. This was the case in the Station nightclub fire.

In Ontario, there are mandatory retrofit requirements in the province’s fire code that apply to certain type of uses and premises, including clubs and dance halls. Any existing nightclub must comply with the 1986 Ontario Building Code requirements, or as they are amended by the fire code retrofit section. The requirements are intended to bring existing older buildings to an acceptable level of fire safety.

The behavioural studies conducted after the Station nightclub fire reinforced one well known phenomemon that the building codes in Canada ignore. People tend to exit in an emergency through the same door they used to enter the floor area or the building. Familiarity is an important factor in people’s decisions, yet the building codes do not recognize this in exit design.

Building codes may add new requirements for the design of crowded assembly occupancies, especially regarding sprinklering, as a result of the Station nightclub fire. However, the most important aspect of fire safety comes from people’s attitudes towards the fire problem. Awareness, education, testing and maintaining fire safety equipment properly, are at least as important in saving lives as adding new fire safety hardware to a building.

Demir Delen, P.Eng. is director of fire protection engineering at Morrison Hershfield of Toronto.


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