Canadian Consulting Engineer

Nightclub Fires II

The Station Nightclub fire of 2003 has sparked major changes in the NFPA life safety code and what are deemed to be acceptable safeguards for the public.

May 1, 2004  By Sean A. Tracey, P.Eng., NFPA

The Station Nightclub fire of 2003 has sparked major changes in the NFPA life safety code and what are deemed to be acceptable safeguards for the public.

At 11:07 p.m. on February 20, 2003 a fire erupted in the Station nightclub located in the small community of West Warwick, Rhode Island.

The fire had devastating effects. The single-storey combustible construction building was packed to over capacity with 432 occupants. There were no sprinklers in place. A pyrotechnic display to launch the first set of the band “Great White” ignited the fire. It spread so quickly that many witnesses stated that the people who had not made it out of the nightclub within the first minute and a half had little chance of survival. Video shot inside the club seems to support this. The incident resulted in 100 fatalities and 200 injuries.

Subsequent tests using mock-ups of the nightclub by the U.S. National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) have shown how the fire could have been contained or even extinguished by the activation of just one sprinkler head.

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Grand jury indictments have been issued for 200 counts of manslaughter to each of the club owners, and the band’s tour manager. Extensive civil litigation that has also been launched could have longer-term implications.

Many believe that such an incident could never occur in Canada. This is simply not true.

Several weeks before the Station nightclub fire, a bar in Brampton, Ontario, with 800 people inside, had an eerily similar occurrence. A band set off pyrotechnics, igniting the ceiling. Thankfully, the fire was put out with a portable extinguisher. However, two of the four exit doors were later found to be impassable.

Other jurisdictions in Canada have reported that immediately following the Station nightclub fire a rash of pyrotechnic permit applications was filed. These were not new proposals but existing shows that had previously operated below public scrutiny.

In the weeks following the Station fire, the National Fire Protection Association (NFPA) became one of the focal points for efforts to review this tragedy. NFPA provided resources for the investigation and a consensus framework for the review. The association produces the NFPA 101, Life Safety Code that has been adopted in numerous jurisdictions across North America. It immediately convened its technical committee on Assembly Occupancies. All activity was conducted in an open, public process.

The results produced a range of changes for these facilities. Designers reviewing either new plans or renovations to existing nightclubs, bars, and discotheques should look beyond the minimum code provisions of the fire and building codes and into the conclusions coming from the NFPA consultations as a matter of due diligence.

The Station fire clearly confirmed several basic tenets of fire safety. The first tenet exhibited was that it is a characteristic of human behaviour to wait for reinforcing clues. In this case, interior video footage shows that little or no crowd evacuation occurred until 35 to 48 seconds into the fire. Any alarms within the club were not heard as the band continued to play. Many people believed the fire was part of the band’s act.

A second tenet is that occupants will attempt to exit through the same door in which they entered. On the night of the fire, patrons attempted an orderly exit through the front doors; however, approximately a minute and a half into the fire this door became impassable. The Providence Journal revealed that only 90 survivors exited through the door. Only after the failure of this exit path did patrons seek out alternative routes. Designers need to be cognizant of this fact in designing for these scenarios. When determining exit requirements and occupancy ratings, designers must not just consider numbers of persons per floor area, and exiting capacity of the doors, but human behaviour and other factors that can constrain the flow. The Life Safety Code provides detailed guidance on these factors.

A third tenet is that room content and the flame spread rating of materials can directly affect how quickly fire spreads. In tests on full-scale mock-ups performed by NIST, the fire quickly spread due to combustible foam sound absorption material that had been applied to the walls. Tests showed that these room materials resulted in what could be considered an ultrafast fire. Within one minute and 10 seconds, flashover occurred in the dance floor area, and within one and a half minutes the room was totally blocked by smoke.

When to sprinkler

One of the most significant issues addressed by the NFPA public consultation process was what should be the acceptable threshold before sprinklers are required in these nightclubs.

To aid in the decisions, NFPA commissioned a study, Analysis to Establish a Nightclub Sprinkler Threshold. Using the latest modelling software, the analysis looked at exiting provisions, fire spread and survivability. It combined two separate modelling tools. The first, using NIST’s Fire Dynamic Simulator, would show heat, smoke, and carbon monoxide spread through a building. The second, an egress model, SIMULEX, would determine how quickly occupants could leave before evacuation became untenable.

The results vary significantly based on assumptions used. Using typical construction and existing code requirements for exiting, 100 persons could safely leave an unsprinklered occupancy. Occupancies greater than 100 could result in the patrons being faced with untenable conditions during the period of exiting i.e. exposure to heat, blinding smoke, and a toxic level of carbon monoxide. The results were then presented to the technical committee.

As a result of the public consultation process several fundamental Tentative Interim Amendments were approved for the NFPA Life Safety Code, and the NFPA 5000 Building Construction and Safety Code. All existing specialty amusement facilities (bars, nightclubs, discotheques, etc.) with an occupancy rating of over 100 shall be fully sprinklered. All new facilities, regardless of size, shall be required to be sprinklered. In addition, any facility for more than 250 people that has festival seating, open non-assigned seating or a standing area, would be required to have a life safety evaluation performed and accepted by the Authority Having Jurisdiction (AHJ).

Crowd managers, trained to a level acceptable to the jurisdictional authority, would be required at a ratio of 250-to-1. Finally, club owners would be required to inspect all means of egress daily and maintain records of these inspections.

Although NFPA’s Life Safety Code has not been adopted in all jurisdictions in Canada, it provides excellent guidance when the Canadian model codes and provincial codes may be silent on specific provisions. Designers should therefore consider the requirements for clubs and other such crowded venues, and advise owners or their agents about the code’s recent provisions.

Sean Tracey, P.Eng. is Canadian Regional Manager of the NFPA. He is based in Ottawa, e-mail stracey@NFPA.org

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