A nightclub fire raises the question, again, of hazardous interior finish materials
NFPA Journal®, March/April 2013
Like everyone in the fire and life safety communities, I was shocked by the recent news of the Kiss nightclub fire in Brazil that killed more than 230 people. The fire occurred just days before the 10th anniversary of The Station nightclub fire in West Warwick, Rhode Island, that killed 100 people. The similarities between the two events are sobering, including the issue of certain interior finishes. As was the case in The Station fire, combustible insulating foam appears to have been a major factor in how the Kiss fire began and spread.
These are the kinds of materials that NFPA 101®, Life Safety Code®, refers to as “specific materials” in subsection 10.2.4, which addresses several materials that have historically created some nasty fires, starting with textile wall and ceiling materials, including carpeting, in paragraph 10.2.4.1.
We know that textiles placed on walls and ceilings can burn very quickly. NFPA 101 includes several types of textile installations with differing requirements. For example, new textile materials on walls or ceilings must have a flame spread index of 25 or less and be installed in a room protected by sprinklers. If the textile only extends three-quarters of the way from the floor to the ceiling but is not more than 8 feet (2.4 meters) high, the material must have a flame spread index of 25 or less if sprinklers are not installed in the building.
Paragraph 10.2.4.2 addresses expanded vinyl wall and ceiling materials. Many vinyl wall coverings are thin and present little problem from a fire development standpoint, since thin materials tend to take on the burning characteristics of the material to which they are applied. Expanded materials, on the other hand, are often “puffy” and thicker than the more common vinyl wall coverings. The code is stringent in its requirements, which are very similar to the requirements for textile materials applied to walls and ceilings.
The code also addresses cellular or foamed plastic, the material involved in The Station fire. The code prohibits the use of cellular or foamed plastic unless it has been subjected to large-scale testing to document its combustibility. The code provides examples of acceptable tests, such as NFPA 286, Standard Methods of Fire Tests for Evaluating Contribution of Wall and Ceiling Interior Finish to Room Fire Growth. Cellular or foamed plastics can be used for trim as long as it covers no more than 10 percent of the walls or ceiling, provided “that it is not less than 20 pounds/cubic foot (320 kilograms/cubic meter) in density, is limited to a half inch (13 millimeters) in thickness and 4 inches (100 millimeters) in width, and complies with the requirements for Class A or Class B interior wall and ceiling finish as described in 10.2.3.4; however, the smoke developed index shall not be limited.”
A new addition to subsection 10.2.4 covering polypropylene and high-density polypropylene prohibits the use of polypropylene as an interior finish material unless it complies with the requirements of 10.2.3.7.2, which call for testing in accordance with NFPA 286 with specific performance criteria noted. Also new to the 2012 edition of the Life Safety Code are requirements in subsection 10.3.8 for lockers. This subsection states that lockers of combustible material other than wood are to be considered interior finish.
The requirements for interior finish materials are in the Life Safety Code for good reason. Past experience has proven that materials applied to the walls and ceilings of spaces can have a significant effect on fire development.
Chip Carson, P.E., is president of Carson Associates, Inc., a fire engineering and code consultancy.