by Shelly Reese
Just after 5 a.m. last February 21, NFPA Director of Public Affairs Margie Coloian turned on the radio in her car. As she made her way through the dark streets near her Rhode Island home toward NFPA's Quincy, Massachusetts, headquarters, she heard the news.
A fire the night before had destroyed a nightclub in West Warwick, Rhode Island, and killed nearly a dozen people.
"I knew that area fairly well," she recalls. "At that point, there were only about 11 fatalities [reported], and I remember thinking, ‘There's no room for a big club over there. How could there be so many fatalities at a small club?'"
But the tragedy was much worse and would lead to historic changes in fire and life safety codes.
In the year since the inferno at The Station nightclub claimed 100 lives in the fourth-deadliest nightclub fire in U.S. history, NFPA and several New England states have worked hard to ensure such a tragedy doesn't happen again. NFPA has enacted tough new code provisions for fire sprinklers and crowd management in nightclub-type venues. Those provisions, as well as stricter standards being considered or adopted by various states, mark sweeping changes to the codes and standards governing safety in assembly occupancies.
"I think history will provide the yardstick for how truly significant these changes are," says Casey Grant, secretary of NFPA's Standards Council. "I believe they provide us with some manner to ensure that these types of disasters don't happen again and that the people who suffered and died did not do so in vain.
"It's difficult for people not involved in codes and standards to understand how far-reaching these changes can be: they really do have an effect on tomorrow's world. Unfortunately, it often takes a disaster to serve as a wake-up call in the court of public opinion to make lasting changes occur."
Recap of that night
February 20, 2003, was a frigid night. Snow dusted the ground outside The Station Concert Club, where more than 400 fans had gathered to hear Great White, a heavy-metal band from the 1980s.
Around 11 p.m., during the band's opening number, a stagehand at the back of the stage ignited a "gerb," a pyrotechnic canister that releases a fountain of sparks, and the walls and ceiling above the stage caught fire instantly. Confused as to whether the fire was part of the band's act or not, many patrons delayed heading for the exits for precious moments, a decision that proved fatal.
Within three minutes, the club was engulfed in flames. The lights didn't go out initially, but the thick smoke gave the appearance that they did, and pandemonium reigned. Blinded by the smoke, patrons couldn't see the illuminated exit signs. As the frightened crowd rushed toward doorways and windows, people fell and were trampled. Others fled into the bathrooms, which offered no escape.
Dozens of fire crews from all over Rhode Island and southeastern Massachusetts responded to the blaze, rushing to the aid of victims jammed in the club's doorway. Firefighters made their way into the building to search for survivors and extinguish the fire, but they were soon ordered to evacuate. Not long after, the roof caved in.
Across the street from the club, a triage center was established at the Cowesett Inn to evaluate the extent of victims' injuries. Some 30 ambulances and a bus lined up outside the bar like taxis. In all, the victims filled 15 medical centers.
By 2 a.m., the ambulances had stopped coming, and hearses began pulling in. Ladder trucks continued to pour water on the flaming skeleton of the building where bodies were still "stacked inside like cordwood," as one West Warwick firefighter told a reporter.
The next morning, as newspapers landed on front doorsteps and clock radios spouted the morning headlines, the nation focused its horrified attention on the Rhode Island mill town. Although a formal investigation would be months in the offing, media reports immediately focused on the interior of the unsprinklered club, which contained highly flammable soundproofing foam and plastic, and on whether management had given the band permission to use pyrotechnics.
A task force convened by the Commonwealth of Massachusetts' Department of Public Safety to study Massachusetts' building and fire codes in light of the Station fire summarized the situation:
"Each of these elements contributed to the tragedy: the proximity of pyrotechnics and foam insulation in a wood-frame building, the crowd's initial lack of awareness of an emergency situation, untrained staff, too many people with insufficient exits, and, most important, the lack of a potentially life-saving sprinkler system. Individually, they presented a danger. Together, they formed a ‘perfect storm' of events that precipitated the catastrophe."
As people across the country wondered how this could happen, NFPA staff had already convened to tackle the greater question: "How can we keep this from happening again?"
NFPA's Executive Vice-President and Chief Engineer Arthur Cote joined the group. Cote, who'd heard the news before he left the house, had already called NFPA Vice-President for Building and Life Safety Gary Keith, who was arranging to get an investigator to the site.
By 7 a.m., NFPA staff were hashing out the most pressing issues of the day. What information and statistics would the public and the media need? What relevant codes and standards should be published on the NFPA's Web site for public access and how should they be explained to reporters? How could NFPA best fulfill its mandate as a fire-safety advocate?
"I joined NFPA 26 years ago, just before the Beverly Hills Supper Club fire," says Cote. "I was on staff during the MGM Grand fire and the first World Trade Center bombing in 1993. This ranked right up there as one of the more intense episodes we've had to contend with."
Fortunately, NFPA had a new communication tool in the form of the Internet. Within hours, staff began posting relevant contributions from colleagues throughout the organization, including safety tips for club-goers compiled by the Public Education Division staff, statistical and historical information about other major nightclub fires from the Fire Research and Analysis group, NFPA Journal® articles, and links to NFPA products that were linked to the tragedy. In addition, the Codes and Standards Administration staff made relevant codes available free online. In the 10 days following the fire, these free-access codes and other information about nightclub fires were requested more than 6,000 times, according to NFPA Web Publisher Mike Hazell.
The Web site was instrumental in helping get information out in a timely fashion, says Coloian, whose group fielded about 125 media-related calls on the day after the fire alone.
"We were taking calls as fast as we could," she remembers. "All six lines coming into the Public Affairs office were lit up, and all of the major media outlets were trying to get through. We were farming the calls out to four or five staffers, who were walking the reporters through the standards. They were literally on the telephone all day, and those calls would have taken even longer if we hadn't had the Web site to direct people to."
By 12:30 p.m., NFPA Senior Fire Investigator Robert Duval had made his way to the scene of the fire, in response to an appeal for help by the Rhode Island Fire Marshal's Office.
"I was in Chicago for a presentation and I was then to fly to Hong Kong for another presentation. Upon hearing of the fire and speaking to Gary Keith and then the RI FM Office, I flew back from Chicago and went to the fire scene directly from the T.F. Green airport," Duval says.
The first outside investigator on the scene, Duval's job wasn't to assess blame but to construct a narrative of what happened.
"Our investigation group doesn't study origin and cause," he explains. "We're there to tell a story about what happened and to see how our codes would have affected the situation had they been followed."
For the better part of two weeks, Duval immersed himself in the fire.
"By studying fires that occur, we get to see if our codes are working in situations where they are used and if they would have made a difference in situations where they weren't in place," he says. "The process enables NFPA to make sure our codes are working properly or to draft amendments when necessary. That's how some of our codes evolve."
Evolutionary codes, revolutionary speed
Understanding the evolutionary nature of NFPA codes, Cote set the wheels in motion to call a special meeting of the Technical Committee on Assembly Occupancies and Membrane Structures even before Duval began sifting through the facts of the fire. As the death toll climbed to 95 confirmed dead by day's end—it would ultimately reach 100—Cote realized that "there was no way we could remain quiet on this issue. We had a responsibility in our role as a safety advocate to look at the situation and act."
Three weeks after the last smoldering ember was extinguished, the technical committee held an emergency meeting in Boston. Some 30 committee members and alternates, as well as Station survivors, victims' families, and members of the fire-safety community, gathered to discuss the fire and a similar crowd-crush incident not long before at Chicago's E2 nightclub. That incident left 21 people dead.
The conversation focused on whether the 2003 editions of NFPA 5000™, Building Construction and Safety Code™, and NFPA 101®, Life Safety Code®, should be amended immediately in response to the tragedies or whether possible changes should be considered later, when the 2006 editions of the codes are drafted.
Participants quickly agreed that the situation was too critical to risk waiting any longer and proposed that NFPA issue emergency code amendments, called Tentative Interim Amendments (TIAs). TIAs, which are processed in accordance with Section 5 of NFPA's Regulations Governing Committee Projects, haven't gone through the full codes- and standards-making process that includes public proposals and comments in a Report on Proposals and a Report on Comments. They're effective only between editions of a document and automatically become a proposal for the next edition of the document, when it's then subject to all of the procedures of the full codes- and standards-making process.
The committee reviewed numerous TIA proposals submitted by groups such as the International Fire Marshals Association (IFMA) and drafted its own proposals, based on suggestions voiced at the meeting.
Ron Farr, chief/fire marshal with the Kalamazoo Township Fire Department in Michigan and immediate past president of IFMA, submitted a number of TIAs recommending sprinklering new and existing nightclub-like buildings. The challenge, he recalls, lay in differentiating places of public assembly where people were most at risk from those less dangerous.
"We were after the occupancies where people wouldn't be able to get out in a timely manner. Situations where there might be loud music, flashing lights, large crowds, and alcohol," recalls Farr, who was later appointed to the committee along with other representatives of the fire-service and sprinkler-manufacturing communities.
The group was also torn as to what the occupancy threshold for sprinklering such buildings should be. Farr initially argued that all existing nightclub-like occupancies with 50 or more occupants should be sprinklered but was ultimately convinced, after subsequent fire modeling, that only existing facilities with more than 100 occupants needed to be sprinkled because smaller crowds would have time to exit a burning building, such as a nightclub.
On July 25, the Standards Council reviewed and issued the technical committee's recommended TIAs for NFPA 101 and NFPA 5000. The TIAs, which went into effect August 14, require fire sprinklers in new nightclubs and similar assembly occupancies and in existing facilities that accommodate more than 100. They also require building owners to inspect exits to ensure they're free of obstructions and to maintain records of each inspection. The presence of at least one trained crowd manager is required for all gatherings, except religious services, with more than 250 people, unless the authority having jurisdiction makes an exception. For larger gatherings, additional crowd managers are required at a ratio of 1:250. Finally, the TIAs prohibit festival seating for crowds of more than 250 unless a life-safety evaluation approved by the authority having jurisdiction has been performed. Festival seating, according to NFPA 101, is a "form of audience/spectator accommodation in which no seating, other than a floor or ground surface, is provided for the audience to gather and observe a performance."
"I think the process worked very well and spoke well of NFPA's ability to respond to input and implement TIAs in a timely way," Farr says. "The organization moved fast to come up with a solution to the problem. Everyone realized the importance and the value of what had to be done."
The states take action
NFPA wasn't the only organization that saw the fire as a call to arms. Rhode Island and Massachusetts, the states whose residents were most affected by the disaster, also set about reviewing their fire and building codes.
The Rhode Island General Assembly created a 17-member special commission to study the state laws concerning pyrotechnics and public safety. NFPA staffers testified twice before the commission and provided technical support to the state fire marshal's office, which listened to two months of testimony from fire and crowd-control experts, business owners, the public, and survivors of the fire.
On July 7, less than five months after the Station blaze, Rhode Island Governor Donald L. Carcieri signed the group's recommendations into law. As a result, Rhode Island adopted NFPA 1, Uniform Fire Code™, and NFPA 101, as amended by the Rhode Island Fire Safety Board, for new and existing buildings. The law eliminated a "grandfather" clause that previously exempted older buildings from meeting current building code requirements.
"That was probably the biggest thing to come out of that legislation," says Tom Coffey, executive director of the Rhode Island Fire Safety Board. "Prior to that, we could only adopt NFPA 1 and NFPA 101 for new construction. Now, new and existing structures will be covered."
The new standards go into effect February 20, the first anniversary of the Station fire.
Rhode Island also adopted NFPA 1126, Use of Pyrotechnics Before a Proximate Audience, which restricts the indoor use of pyrotechnics to the largest facilities. Holders of pyrotechnic licenses issued or renewed after February 20, 2004, must demonstrate satisfactory knowledge of NFPA standards for the use of pyrotechnics.
Finally, the law requires that fire sprinklers be installed in all "special amusement buildings" with occupancy levels of 150 or more by July 1, 2006. Public-assembly spaces with occupancy loads of more than 300 must comply by July 1, 2005. The only exception is fully alarmed places of worship and state and government municipal buildings.
Because the Rhode Island General Assembly specified a 150-occupant threshold for sprinklering nightclub-like venues, it will have to determine whether to adopt the more stringent 100-occupant threshold for existing buildings specified by the NFPA's TIAs. That's an issue Coffey expects to come up in the current legislative session.
In Massachusetts, home to about a third of the people killed in the fire, the Task Force on Fire and Building Safety presented Public Safety Secretary Edward A. Flynn and Governor Mitt Romney with its report in September. The committee recommended eliminating the grandfather clause that permits existing public-assembly buildings to operate without fire sprinklers.
In addition, the 32-member task force recommended fire sprinklers be installed within three years in all nightclubs, discos, bars, and dance halls that hold more than 50 occupants. To improve emergency egress, it recommended that such facilities improve exit identification, invest in automatic music-shutdown devices, and install main exit doors 72 inches (188 centimeters) wide. The group's report recommends banning pyrotechnics in such facilities and prohibiting the use of foam plastics on interior finishes in unsprinklered clubs. Changes suggested by the task force are being drafted into legislative statutes and will be submitted to the General Court and regulatory agencies.
Connecticut also passed legislation imposing harsher penalties for the kinds of safety violations that fueled the fire. A newly enacted law empowers local fire marshals and law enforcement officials to shut clubs down immediately if they feel overcrowding, blocked exits, or indoor use of pyrotechnics pose a risk of death or injury. The law also requires club owners and managers to make an announcement identifying emergency exits before a performance or event.
The code changes made by NFPA and these states may provide little solace to families of the victims and those injured in the Station and E2 incidents. They certainly won't restore lost lives. But next time music lovers step into a nightclub to hear a band, the public-safety tips posted on the NFPA Web site may inspire them to locate the nearest exit before the lights dim. They may also encourage club managers to make a public-safety announcement before kicking off each show.
As for the code amendments themselves, they will undoubtedly save lives. Grant says NFPA demonstrated the effectiveness and flexibility of the code-amendment process in the wake of the two incidents.
"From the perspective of the families of the victims, nothing is ever fast enough," he says. "But people in the code-writing community know you can't write codes over night. Codes are a reflection of the will of society on a technical topic, and we have to go to lengths to ensure their restrictions make sense. For NFPA, it's generally a three-year cycle. We don't want to repeat the E2 and The Station nightclub incidents."
In this Section:
|Quiet on the Set
NFPA 140 provides a source for authorities having jurisdiction seeking guidance when production companies come to their community and want to film an epic.
|If Onlys Become Never Agains
In the year since the fire at The Station nightclub, NFPA has made sweeping changes to the codes governing safety in assembly occupancies to ensure such a tragedy doesn't happen again.