Looks Nice. Burns Hot.
How much of a fire hazard is posed by decorative features
inside and outside buildings?
BY ASHLEY SMITH
ON JULY 25, 2015, A FIRE BROKE OUT on a 14th-floor pool deck at The Cosmopolitan of Las Vegas, a 61-story luxury resort and casino on the Strip. The fire spread quickly, shooting flames and giant black plumes of smoke into the air, sending at least one person to the hospital and causing $2 million in damage. The exact cause was never determined, though discarded cigarettes were suspected.
Firefighters knew exactly why the fire burned so intensely: artificial palm trees made of polyethylene, a highly combustible foam plastic. Clark County Fire Chief Greg Cassell told CNN he had never seen a fire quite like it in his 26 years on the job. The plastic trees acted like “solid gasoline,” he said, causing the fire to “take off like a rocket.” Other outdoor decorations made of synthetic materials, including artificial turf and cabanas, further contributed to the speed and intensity of the blaze.
There are no local or national building and life safety codes that specifically prohibit Las Vegas properties from using these types of combustible decorative features on the outside of buildings, a vulnerability highlighted by the fire at The Cosmopolitan. NFPA 101®, Life Safety Code®, along with several other NFPA codes and the International Building Code (IBC), do regulate interior decorative features—everything from artificial vegetation to massive statues and columns—but a pair of code experts say those regulations are not always enforced and that they may need to be updated and improved.
Marcelo Hirschler, a chemist who runs a fire safety testing and consulting firm, and Douglas Evans, a former fire protection engineer for the Clark County, Nevada, Building Department who is now a private safety consultant for the construction industry, are trying to raise awareness on the topic and explain what they believe should be done to reduce the dangers associated with combustible decorations. Hirschler and Evans will present an education session on the topic at the NFPA Conference & Expo in Las Vegas.
Hirschler and Evans favor a possible expansion of NFPA 101 to include regulations for external decorative features, particularly large items made of polystyrene or polyurethane plastic located close to buildings. They also advocate for a review of the minimum fire testing standards for interior decorative features, which they say were written to apply to small items, not the large-scale or even giant decorative features that exist throughout Las Vegas. Those include elements such as columns, statues, large signs and LED screens, hand-painted canvas murals that take up entire walls, buildings within buildings, and much more.
“There are also no limits on the size and number of interior decorations, and there should be,” Hirschler said. “Decorations are only properly regulated if they’re large enough to be considered an interior finish, which is more than 10 percent of a wall or ceiling. Most people are not aware this is a potential problem.”
Las Vegas offers countless examples of the kind of faux features that concern Hirschler and Evans. In a city built on fantasy, it’s no surprise that trees, gold statues, marble columns, and thatched-roof tiki bars are actually made of plastic.
After the Cosmopolitan fire, Clark County Department of Building and Fire Prevention Director Ron Lynn told the Associated Press that the plastic fronds burned 10 times faster and hotter than an actual tree, and the artificial trunk made of metal polyurethane foam and fiberglass resin burned five times more intensely. Test results indicated that the tree’s materials did not meet flame and smoke resistance standards for indoor use and would not be allowed inside a building or as an exterior component attached to a building.
Following the fire, Clark County considered changing its building code to regulate artificial vegetation around exterior areas of buildings. The decision was ultimately made that it didn’t make sense from an enforcement perspective, according to Lynn. A letter did go out to hotels and resorts asking them to consider removing such features. “We have millions of square feet of conference space alone,” Lynn said. “This becomes a logistical question of how much you can regulate.”
The Cosmopolitan said it planned to remove all the artificial foliage outside and replace it with live foliage. As of December 4, the hotel had removed about half of the artificial trees, according to the Associated Press. The rest were to be removed early this year.
Plastic palm trees were blamed for fueling a fast-moving fire on the pool deck of The Cosmopolitan hotel in Las Vegas last year. Photograph: AP/Wide World
Plastics are compared to gasoline because they burn much faster than materials such as wood and cotton. The flame spreads more rapidly; greater amounts of smoke are produced; and toxic or combustible gases are released more quickly. Polystyrene plastics tend to melt or drip and further contribute to the spread of a fire.
Even so, Hirschler points out that plastic, in and of itself, isn’t necessarily the problem. No material is inherently bad in all situations if it is properly regulated, and no material should be banned outright, he said. “I’m concerned about the amount of decorative materials, not because they’re plastic but because they are not regulated,” he said. “If an item passes a fire test, I don’t give a hoot what it’s made of.”
For internal decorative features, NFPA 101 requires different tests depending on the nature, geometry, and use of the material. NFPA 701, Standard Methods of Fire Tests for Flame Propagation of Textiles and Films, and NFPA 289, Standard Method of Fire Test for Individual Fuel Packages, are among the tests required for interior furnishings and contents. The NFPA 701 test is smaller in scale, what’s known as a Bunsen burner test, Hirschler said, while NFPA 289 is a full-scale test that more closely simulates real-life conditions. According to Evans, Bunsen burner tests were meant for much smaller decorative items than those found in many Las Vegas casinos. “It refers to things like small plants and mannequins. What happens when that mannequin becomes a 40-foot-tall statue? How big is an umbrella before it becomes a ceiling?” he said. Lynn said Clark County conducts the full-scale test for foam plastics.
Tracy Vecchiarelli, a senior fire protection engineer at NFPA, sees the issue a bit differently. “I agree that we definitely have a gap in the codes where we have very precise regulation of these decorative features when used inside a building, yet we are silent when similar materials are used in the public, occupied areas on the outside,” she said. She points out that NFPA 1, Fire Code, and NFPA 101 include mandates for testing of contents that utilize foam plastics when used as other than interior finish; NFPA codes, for example, would not consider the NFPA 701 test to be suitable for a foam plastic decorative item. The NFPA 289 test and its companion, UL 1975, Fire Tests for Foamed Plastics Used for Decorative Purposes, offer the testing protocol for such items. Vecchiarelli disagrees that these features are only regulated when they qualify as interior finishes. “The NFPA codes are quite clear as to what test protocol applies to what material under what conditions,” she said.
Varied track record
The Cosmopolitan was not the only fire made worse by the presence of combustible plastics or decorative features, either outside or inside buildings. In 2008, the Monte Carlo Resort & Casino in Las Vegas caught fire when a welder ignited a decorative band on the building’s exterior that was made of foam plastic. In a follow-up investigation, according to Las Vegas Business Press, it was determined that the hard polyethylene material encapsulating the polyurethane foam plastic was not to code. Parts of the Monte Carlo’s roof, façade, and upper stories were engulfed in flames, and 13 people were injured. Other hotels, most prominently the Excalibur Hotel and Casino, also use the same exterior foam plastic material, according to Las Vegas Business Press.
Other fires involving decorative features have been deadly. On October 30, 2015, during a concert at the Colectiv nightclub in Bucharest, Romania, the pyrotechnics show on stage ignited a polystyrene acoustic foam pillar. The fire spread rapidly, killing 64 people and injuring 147. After the fire, some 20,000 Romanians took to the streets to protest what they called corruption, including the use of fireworks in a basement, government incompetence, and the fact that the building was apparently not properly licensed or inspected. Under public pressure, the country’s Prime Minister resigned.
The deadliest nightclub fire in U.S. history is also related to combustible decorative features, although an exact cause of ignition is unknown. On November 28, 1942, fire destroyed the Cocoanut Grove club in Boston, killing 492 people. Witnesses said the fire started in an artificial palm tree, while others said it began in a cloth covering the ceiling. The smoke was toxic, and most of the deaths were caused by asphyxiation rather than burns.
While there were no deaths in the Cosmopolitan or Monte Carlo fires, Evans said safety officials shouldn’t wait for people to die before making important code changes. “Clark County has determined these incidents are rare enough that, at this time, they are not revising their regulations,” he said “But why does it take somebody to die? Why don’t we do something before this becomes a problem?”
Hirschler said the artificial trees at The Cosmopolitan should have been regulated before the fire, and they should be regulated now. If so, they would have been made of a material other than foam plastic, or they would have been protected with some sort of fire-retardant coating or treatment. “The trees at The Cosmopolitan are outdoors but they’re pretty close to the building,” he said. “Do I think [external] decorative features should be covered in the code? Maybe not, if they’re 20 feet from the building. But if they’re two feet away, I would say they should. We just need to use common sense.”
Vecchiarelli agrees that regulation of decorative material outside of the building is an area worth pursuing, especially in an assembly use area like a pool deck. “It is also important for the regulators, designers, and building owners to specify materials that have been subject to the proper test,” she said. “We have different tests for different needs, and those tests are not interchangeable.”