Handling, and planning for, the reality of overcrowded nightspots.
NFPA Journal®, November/December 2009
Many large-loss-of-life fires have occurred in eating and drinking establishments. Examples include the 1942 Cocoanut Grove fire in Boston, which killed 492; the 1940 fire at The Rhythm Club in Mississippi, which killed 207; and the 2003 fire at The Station nightclub in Rhode Island, which killed 100.
NFPA 101®, Life Safety Code®, establishes the maximum occupant load of eating and drinking establishments based on size and available exits, among other factors. Unfortunately, operators of such establishments sometimes permit overcrowding, creating a problem for firefighters trying to enter the building as patrons compete for exits that soon become jammed with people.
One example of this occurred in 1977 at the Beverly Hills Supper Club in Southgate, Kentucky, when a fire that began at 9 p.m. killed 165 people, more than any fire in the United States until that time since the Cocoanut Grove fire. Contributing to the loss of life was an occupant load nearly double the size the club could safely hold.
One reason overcrowding can become a problem is that most eating and drinking establishments are inspected during normal working hours when many are minimally occupied. As a result, inspectors may not see the conditions in the building at peak occupancy. After the Beverly Hills Supper Club fire, fire crews began conducting life-safety inspections in the late evening and early morning hours.
Other factors often cited in large-loss-of-life fires are the use of unapproved combustible decorations, locked or blocked exits, and obstructed exit paths.
Reflecting on problems encountered during major loss-of-life fires provides a means of developing tactical solutions that can save lives. For example, large quantities of combustible decorations and construction materials in large open areas can result in a fast-moving fire that’s difficult to control. Rate-of-flow should be calculated for large open areas during pre-fire planning to determine the number and size of fire streams needed to extinguish a well-involved fire.
The extinguishment problem is exacerbated by blocked means of egress and ingress. Most people will try to escape through the main entrance, which can create a blockage during peak occupancy. During pre-fire planning, firefighters should identify alternate ways to enter and leave a building, including some that may not meet code requirements. Knowing access points and flow requirements help a first-arriving officer decide whether to fight the fire or start search-and-rescue operations. Search and rescue is a slow process that may have minimal impact when hundreds or thousands of people are trapped. If the fire is controllable, extinguishing it will generally save the largest number of lives. An alternate extinguishment tactic would be to protect egress paths with a fire stream and evacuate the patrons.
If the first-arriving fire company decides to start rescue and evacuation rather than extinguishment, however, several options could be available. Patrons should be directed to move away from the building to a designated safe area. It may also be possible to open a wall near an exit to provide additional exit width. Assigning firefighters to direct or lead patrons to alternate exits can also be effective and requires minimal staffing.
A first-arriving officer confronted with a large number of trapped patrons must choose between extinguishing the fire and starting rescue operations. Generally, extinguishment is the most effective tactic, but it is not always possible. In these cases, it may be best to protect exits and facilitate the evacuation.
This column is adapted from the author's book StructuralFireFighting, available online or (800) 344-3555.