Analyzing witness statements to create a new look at the Station Nightclub Fire
NFPA Journal® , January/February 2011
By Fred Durso, Jr.
A bartender working the rear bar at the Station Nightclub the night of February 20, 2003, had an immediate response to a fire spreading from the main stage: she grabbed the cash drawer — something she always did when leaving her post — and led several patrons through the kitchen to an exit.
A new study by NFPA and the National Research Council Canada (NRCC) finds that such job-related routines and acts of altruism were prevalent during the fire at the unsprinklered club in West Warwick, Rhode Island, which killed 100 people and injured 200 others. The blaze was caused by indoor use of pyrotechnics during a rock concert. The study, “The Station Nightclub Fire — An Analysis of Witness Statements,” provides insight into how survivors responded to the fast-moving blaze, and finds similarities between their behaviors and those of people at other fire-related incidents.
NFPA and NRCC analyzed 355 witness statements compiled by local and state police investigators, material that was released to the public in 2006 by the Rhode Island District Attorney’s Office. Researchers developed a questionnaire to gather specific information from the statements, including a person’s familiarity with the club, recollection of the night’s events, escape route, and observations of the reactions of others. NFPA used a similar methodology for its last human behavior report, “Analysis of Published Accounts of the World Trade Center Evacuation,” released in 2005 and produced for the National Institute of Standards and Technology. Police interviews were also used to study occupant behavior in the Beverly Hills Supper Club fire in 1977, which killed 164 people and injured 70 others.
“People tend to stay in their roles,” says Rita Fahy, NFPA’s manager for Fire Data Bases and Systems and the study’s lead author. “The busboys at the Beverly Hills Supper Club told the waitresses about the fire, and the waitresses told their customers. There was a good spread of assistance around the room because people were taking care of their own area.” Similarly, some workers at the Station Nightclub — including the bartender at the back bar — directed customers to exits. However, the bouncer assigned to guard the door nearest the stage reportedly prevented some patrons from exiting. He died in the fire.
The study found that altruistic behavior during the blaze saved lives. Many people who fell to the floor were lifted to their feet, while others assisted strangers through windows — sometimes at their own expense. “Survivors reported being helped out by people who didn’t make it out,” Fahy says. Witnesses from the 9/11 attacks at the World Trade Center reported similar behaviors, particularly people reassuring others they would reach safety or calming frantic evacuees.
Eight years earlier, survivors from the 1993 World Trade Center attack surmised that the bombing was a transformer explosion. “People initially try to put an unexpected event into a context that makes sense,” Fahy says. “At the Station, they saw flames during a concert with an ’80s hair band, thought it was a special effect, and thought sprinklers or someone with a fire extinguisher would put it out.” Survivors from the 1984 fire at the “Haunted Castle” facility at Six Flags Great Adventure Theme Park in Jackson Township, New Jersey, also mistook the blaze for part of the performance. Eight people died in the fire after a polyurethane foam pad was accidentally ignited inside the unsprinklered facility.
The study’s findings have been submitted to a technical conference for potential publication. For more information on the study, contact Rita Fahy at email@example.com.
The New New Thing
Upcoming SUPDET conference to examine antifreeze, messaging, detection technology research, data centers, and more. Plus, the FPRF endowment gets a boost.
By Fred Durso, Jr.
The Fire Protection Research Foundation will hold its 15th annual Suppression, Detection, and Signaling Research and Applications Technical Working Conference (SUPDET) March 22-25 in Orlando, Florida.
The conference is designed to introduce technological advancements across a wide range of fire protection issues. Featured presentations at this year’s conference include residential sprinkler research on antifreeze and sloped ceiling effects; the latest human behavior research and case study implementation of emergency communication messaging in a fire context; detection technology research updates from UL, Oakridge National Labs, and others; commodity classification and sprinkler protection of storage, including high-volume, low-speed fans; and Naval Research Laboratory research updates on Hi-Ex foam.
In addition, a workshop entitled “Fire Protection Challenges in Telecommunications and Information Centers” will be offered to all conference registrants. The half-day event, scheduled for March 23, analyzes the heat-management challenges of telecommunications and information-technology centers, many of which now use heating, ventilation, and air-conditioning (HVAC) systems to control containment and temperature of airflow. The session will analyze how these systems impact fire detection, suppression, egress, and life safety at these facilities, and workgroups will develop an action plan addressing the challenges. NFPA standards currently safeguarding these systems included NFPA 75, Protection of Information Technology Equipment, and NFPA 76, Fire Protection of Telecommunications Facilities.
Addressing safety on a larger scale, another conference session highlights the technological advancements of emergency management and preparedness at universities and airports. Officials from the University of Washington, Virginia Tech, and Dallas/Fort Worth International Airport describe what went into developing mass-notification systems at those facilities. The session’s goal is to underscore emergency communication as it relates to NFPA 72®, National Fire Alarm and Signaling Code®. In the area of suppression, the U.S. Naval Research Laboratory will highlight its latest research on fire-suppression foams.
“NFPA’s sprinkler standards and NFPA 72 are all in cycle,” says FPRF Executive Director Kathleen Almand. “There’s a lot of new information that’s being considered by the fire protection community, and attendees will hear all about it at SUPDET.”
To register for the conference or download a schedule for the event, visit nfpa.org/foundation.
In other FPRF news, NFPA recently provided an additional $4 million to the Foundation’s endowment, adding to the $6 million it provided when the endowment was created in 2008 to mark the Foundation’s 25th anniversary. NFPA’s Board of Directors approved the move in December.
The endowment is intended to support the Foundation’s operations and mission to develop NFPA-relevant research.
“As part of our mission, NFPA is committed to research that supports our codes and standards process and provides a greater understanding of today’s fire and life safety challenges,” says NFPA President James Shannon. “By adding to the Foundation’s endowment, we are ensuring they will continue to provide essential information.”
An independent nonprofit that initiates research that shapes NFPA policies and code provisions, FPRF has produced landmark studies that include cost assessment of residential sprinkler systems, as well as call-processing and turnout times for emergency responders. NFPA technical committees have used other Foundation-sponsored research projects to create new codes and standards and update existing NFPA documents.
“This is a furthering of what NFPA started in 2008,” says Almand. “The idea is to give the Foundation a firm footing to conduct its actions independently.” Almand says NFPA’s significant financial backing of the Foundation could convince other funders to support FPRF research.
Some of this year’s possible research projects could center on NFPA’s advocacy work, particularly additional analysis on residential sprinklers and wildland fires.
For more information, visit nfpa.org/foundation.
What Went Wrong
NIST investigates the deadly Sofa Super Store fire
Sprinkler systems could have prevented a deadly warehouse fire, and should be required in commercial spaces housing highly combustible material.
Those are two of the recommendations in a report recently released by the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST), which conducted a study of the Sofa Super Store fire in Charleston, South Carolina, that killed nine firefighters on June 18, 2007. The report indicates the fire, fueled by the building’s highly combustible furniture, started at the store’s loading dock and rapidly spread to the showroom and warehouse. Since the blaze was initially unable to access enough air for combustion, large volumes of smoke and gas traveled to the area above the drop ceiling in the main showroom. Twenty-four minutes after their arrival, firefighters shattered the store’s front windows, creating an influx of oxygen that intensified the fire’s burning rate and ignited the layer of unburned fuel.
While the report doesn’t examine firefighting tactics during the incident, it does outline causes for the fire’s proliferation, and includes key recommendations to prevent similar disasters. For example, some of the store’s roll-up doors, which are tested and maintained with provisions in NFPA 80, Fire Doors and Other Opening Protectives, didn’t close; metal walls allowed the fire to ignite nearby items; and the building lacked a sprinkler system. A computer model created for the study indicates that a system developed in accordance with NFPA 13, Installation of Sprinkler Systems, could have prevented the fire from spreading beyond the loading dock and, eventually, extinguished it completely. The report recommends the adoption of building and fire codes that address high-fuel-load commercial spaces, as well as job-performance requirements of fire inspectors and building plan examiners in line with NFPA 1031, Professional Qualifications for Fire Inspector and Plan Examiner.
The report also notes that the Charleston Fire Department’s turnout that day wasn’t in accordance with NFPA 1710, Organization and Deployment of Fire Suppression Operations, Emergency Medical Operations, and Special Operations to the Public by Career Fire Departments. Researchers concluded that a risk-management plan developed through NFPA 1500, Fire Department Occupational Safety and Health Program, would have likely identified the store as a high-hazard occupancy. In such cases, NFPA 1710 advocates a minimum crew size of five to six members per apparatus, which for this incident would have amounted to 16 to 19 firefighters during the initial response. Only 10 firefighters initially responded to the fire.
“To facilitate efforts to implement our study recommendations into national codes, we will work closely with standards and codes organizations, including NFPA,” says Nelson Bryner, the study’s team leader and deputy division chief for NIST’s Fire Research Division. “NIST engineers and scientists serve on numerous NFPA committees that we will be able to assist.”
The study’s final report will be released this winter. For more information, visit nist.gov.
It’s the Law
Sprinkler mandates take effect, and another story from Faces of Fire
By Fred Durso, Jr.
Another attempt at postponing residential sprinkler requirements has failed in Pennsylvania, which now joins a handful of other states with similar mandates.
Last year, Pennsylvania legislators introduced a bill that would have delayed the enforcement of the statewide adoption of the 2009 International Residential Code® (IRC) that required fire sprinklers in all new townhouses last year and new one- and two-family homes this year. However, the bill stalled during the House’s lame-duck session in November. Similarly last year, the Pennsylvania Builders Association filed an injunction to delay the implementation of the adoption, but the Commonwealth Court of Pennsylvania dismissed the lawsuit in August.
Sprinkler provisions also went into effect January 1 in California, which adopted the 2010 California Residential Code, which includes the 2009 IRC and its sprinkler requirements. The Maryland Department of Housing and Community Development has adopted the 2009 IRC, and counties that haven’t adopted a sprinkler ordinance on their own took votes to accept or opt out of the state option. If no action was taken by December 2010, those counties must adhere to the sprinkler provision by default. South Carolina has adopted the IRC but bumped the implementation to 2014.
Sprinkler supporters are optimistic that New Hampshire will implement sprinkler provisions next year.
Irv and Cathy Bailey have become the newest spokespersons for Faces of Fire, NFPA’s program that humanizes NFPA’s Fire Sprinkler Initiative, which was launched last year to promote residential sprinkler provisions.
Their story, which complements other videos and profiles of sprinkler survivors and advocates at firesprinklerinitiative.org/faces, begins Christmas morning 2009, when a fire erupted in their Louisville, Kentucky, home as the family slept. Awakened by smoke alarms, Irv noticed the fire in his dining room. Cathy exited the house as Irv unsuccessfully attempted to reach his two grandchildren — William, 10, and Solon, 12 — in an upstairs bedroom. Firefighters couldn’t access the upstairs since the floor had collapsed into the basement when they arrived. “The firemen said the boys didn’t have a chance,” Irv says in a Faces of Fire video at firesprinklerinitiative.org. “If we had a sprinkler system, my boys would not have died.”
Fire in the Sky?
FAA issues a warning for lithium batteries.
The Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) recently issued a fire-safety alert for lithium batteries, recommending all air carriers to better document their storage of the batteries, and evaluate the protocols for shipping the devices.
The alert demonstrates a growing concern for these batteries, increasingly used in popular electronic devices such as cell phones. Last September, a cargo plane carrying large quantities of the batteries crashed in the United Arab Emirates. The cause is still being determined, but investigators believe the batteries may have prompted or propagated the on-board fire that downed the plane.
Prior to the alert, which was issued in October, tests conducted by the FAA last year indicate certain lithium batteries are highly flammable and can self-ignite due to short circuiting, overcharging, heating to extreme temperatures, mishandling, or defectiveness. Moreover, the suppression agent assigned to this class of fire and used in a cargo plane’s fire suppression system was not effective at controlling certain battery fires, which exceeded 1,100 degrees Fahrenheit. (Aluminum, a primary material used in the construction of aircraft, melts at 1,200 degrees.) The FAA recommendations do not apply to lithium batteries brought on board or stowed in an aircraft’s passenger cabin.
While NFPA codes currently do not cover fixed fire protection in aircraft cargo holds, NFPA remains poised to provide guidance in this area. “NFPA is in a good position to address and incorporate any changes within the industry that might impact what type of agents and extinguishers would be required on board aircraft,” says Kendall Holland, staff liaison for NFPA 408, Aircraft Hand Portable Fire Extinguishers. “This is possible as a result of our partnership with the FAA, as well as being a part of the Airport Cooperative Research Program, which develops solutions to problems faced by airport operators.”
Holland adds that the FAA has officially adopted NFPA 414, Aircraft Rescue and Fire-Fighting Vehicles.
— Fred Durso, Jr.