Code considerations for holding events in tents
NFPA Journal®, July/August 2012
This is the time of year when many venues erect tents for a wide range of functions: weddings, receptions, wine tastings, graduation parties, and so on. Section 11.11 of the 2012 edition of NFPA 101®, Life Safety Code®, and Chapter 25 of the 2012 edition of NFPA 1, Fire Code, both address tents. Most of the requirements in NFPA 1 were extracted from NFPA 101 and are identified by a bracket at the end of the section. This bracket includes the document number in bold print and the particular section that was extracted.
Tents are simply enclosures in which to hold an event, which determines the occupancy, and they must meet the requirements for that occupancy. Most events held in a tent can probably be considered assembly occupancies, where 50 or more people are gathered for deliberation, worship, entertainment, eating, drinking, amusement, awaiting transportation, or similar activities. Subsection 11.1.1 of NFPA 101 clearly states that the applicable provisions of the occupancy chapter must apply except as modified by Chapter 11. Furthermore, Section 11.11 limits tents to temporary use; a temporary structure is defined by NFPA 101 as a building or structure that is in place for less than 180 days.
One of the primary safety concerns is the flammability of the tent fabric, which must meet the flame propagation performance requirements of NFPA 701, Standard Methods of Fire Tests for Flame Propagation of Textiles and Films. (This is simply a pass/fail test, and the testing organization will typically issue a certificate stating that the tent fabric has passed NFPA 701.) As a result, LP-gas containers used for heating should be located at least 5 feet (1.5 meters) from the tent, never inside it, and all heating equipment is to be labeled for its intended use. Also, paragraph 126.96.36.199 states that smoking inside tents is not permitted unless approved by the AHJ, and “No Smoking” signs should be provided.
Other requirements affect spacing. There must be at least 10 feet (3 meters) between stake lines unless a narrower path for egress is adequate. Tents smaller than 1,200 square feet (112 square meters), such as those used at fairgrounds or street festivals, need not be separated from each other, if adequate safeguards acceptable to the authority having jurisdiction (AHJ) are provided. Tent placement adjacent to other structures is at the discretion of the AHJ, who must take into consideration exposure, use, relationship of openings, and egress. An area of at least 10 feet (3 meters) around the tent should be cleared of combustible vegetation and other flammable or combustible materials.
If a tent does not have sides, exit signs are probably not needed, as the way out is obvious. If it is a walled tent, however, signs are probably needed, as the doorways may not be obvious. Exit signs may be either internally illuminated or externally illuminated, so cardboard exit signs are acceptable in accordance with subsection 7.10.6 of NFPA 101.
If a tent is an assembly occupancy, emergency lighting is required unless it is a private party tent not larger than 1,200 square feet (112 square meters). Of course, if the tent is only occupied during daylight hours, emergency lighting would not be required. Aisle spacing, the combustibility of decorations, an egress inspection, and other details of the NFPA 101 assembly chapter will also have to be confirmed.
Chip Carson, P.E., is president of Carson Associates, Inc., a fire engineering and code consultancy.