Planning for fires in theaters, stadiums, and other entertainment venues
NFPA Journal, March/April 2010
Fighting fires in entertainment venues is a considerable challenge due to the extreme life safety hazard they present. The largest loss of life in a single-building fire in the United States before the World Trade Center attack took place on December 30, 1903, at the newly constructed Iroquois Theater in Chicago, Illinois, when 603 people, mostly children, were killed. The Iroquois fire spread from the stage into the theater, which, like other theaters of that era, was designed for live stage shows. Many of these theaters were later converted into movie theaters, although they continued to be used for occasional live performances, and were generally larger than theaters constructed later as movie theaters. The Iroquois Theater itself was considered safe for 1,724 occupants, although it contained an estimated 1,900 at the time of the fire.
Much has changed to improve life safety at entertainment venues of all kinds since the Iroquois fire. Older venues were seldom protected by automatic sprinklers; modern facilities, by contrast, are usually protected with automatic sprinkler systems. Many theaters, concert halls, and similar facilities have exit doors located at the front to facilitate evacuation.
These different spaces require different approaches to fire control strategy and tactics. Modern theaters, for instance, often include multiple smaller spaces where movies are shown. While those spaces hold fewer people, thus reducing life-safety and property-loss risks and making it easier to confine and extinguish a fire, they also create a complex layout with multiple internal exposures and potential hazards that make it more difficult to find a fire and efficiently advance hose streams into the fire area.
To address these challenges, fire departments should develop pre-incident plans showing a building’s interior layouts and exit locations, and assign firefighters to direct patrons to the closest safe exits. The pre-incident plan should also include the calculated rate of fire flow for each compartment.
While old theaters continue to host live entertainment, acts that draw large audiences have moved to even larger venues, such as sports stadiums and arenas that can hold many tens of thousands of patrons. Some outdoor sports facilities can hold more than 100,000. As a result, entertainment facilities still have the potential for large loss-of-life fires.
In 1963, for example, a propane-fed fire and explosion at the Indiana State Fairgrounds Coliseum killed 74 people. In 1985, 56 people died and 300 were injured at a fire in a 77-year-old grandstand at an outdoor soccer stadium in Bradford, England.
When a fire occurs in the patron seating area of an open, outdoor facility, a well-ventilated, rapidly spreading fire should be expected; smoke exposure, a major life hazard in interior fires, should be minimal, although, as noted above, that is not always the case. Evacuating these large facilities requires considerable time.
Inside a domed stadium holding tens of thousands of people, the problems encountered during a fire would be greatly magnified and would include a potential collapse of the dome roof. The large open areas and high ceilings of arenas, which, though smaller than stadiums, can often seat several thousand people, allow a considerable quantity of smoke to rise above patrons, creating a potential ventilation problem as well. As with the larger older theaters, a large fire in an arena could be impossible to extinguish if built-in protection is not provided or is ineffective. Should that prove to be the case, the best tactic may be to facilitate evacuation through available exits, including exit paths not normally available to patrons.
These and other potential tactics, such as keeping an up-to-date schedule for facilities hosting live events, must be determined during pre-incident planning.
This column is adapted from the author's book StructuralFireFighting, available online or (800) 344-3555