Nightclub safety equals life safety
by Alisa Wolf and John Nicholson
Among the many factors contributing to the tragic loss of life at The Station nightclub in Rhode Island in February was crowd crush, which also contributed to the deaths of patrons at Chicago's E2 club. NFPA Journal talked to several experts for their views on the subject.
Sandwiched between the nightclub disasters in Chicago and West Warwick, Rhode Island, a fire in a Minneapolis nightclub ended relatively well. There was no crush of fleeing patrons, and no one died.
The fire at the Fine Line Music Cafe occurred on the night of February 17, the day 21 patrons of Chicago's E2 club were killed in a crowd crush reportedly triggered by the release of pepper spray to break up a fight. Like the West Warwick tragedy, the Fine Line fire started when a band's pyrotechnics ignited a fire in the ceiling. Despite extensive property damage, however, 120 patrons were escorted to safety within two minutes.
Tim Fuller, fire chief of neighboring St. Paul, Minnesota, says that, although the Fine Line fire occurred in a sprinklered building, it might still have resulted in a deadly crowd crush if staff members hadn't worked closely with fire officials and known just what to do. Fine Line staff knew how to get the guests out because they'd attended monthly meetings of a downtown entertainment task force coordinated by the Minneapolis fire and police departments. The task force even called a special meeting on the afternoon of the fire in response to the E2 tragedy.
"You can't wait for these things to happen," Fuller says. "You have to get staff together and make it clear what the ordinances and codes consist of."
The success of the Fire Line evacuation is worth noting because it may be the exception that proves the rule. According to crowd control and evacuation experts on NFPA's Technical Committee on Assembly Occupancies, conditions that led to the crowd-crush and fire deaths at E2 and The Station in West Warwick are widespread.
"The timing is shocking," Paul Wertheimer, president of Crowd Management Strategies, says of the Chicago and West Warwick tragedies. "But the fact that they happened is not. The potential for more of these types of disasters is still there and will occur if we don't address the real problems of popular culture in public assembly venues."
Jake Pauls, of Jake Pauls Consulting Service in Building Use and Safety, is another member of the Technical Committee on Assembly Occupancies who believes that, without immediate action, more crowd-crush disasters will occur, and not just in small nightclubs.
"I think we've only seen the tip of the iceberg," he says. "I am deeply concerned that we need to do more in even larger buildings and public assemblies."
According to Pauls, building safety and crowd management experts have been trying for years to bring issues of safety in public spaces into the national spotlight. Unfortunately, it took two tragedies and the loss of 120 lives to do it.
Managing crowds in public places
The crowd-crush disaster in the Chicago nightclub started when a security guard used pepper spray to break up a fight, triggering a rush from the dance area on the second floor toward what may have been the only available exit to the first floor. In the ensuing melee, people were trapped in the overcrowded stairwell. Twenty-one died of asphyxia or heart attacks in the subsequent crush, and 57 people were injured.
Three days after the E2 tragedy, national attention shifted to a fire started by pyrotechnics at a Great White concert at The Station in West Warwick, which took the lives of 99 people and injured more than 187. When they realized the club was on fire, most of the patrons tried to leave through the main entrance. Bodies were found stacked at the door.
As both these tragedies indicate, crowd crush can play a large role in the outcome of any incident in which a rush for the exits occurs, whether the rush is caused by a fire or any other event that triggers movement of occupants.
"The focus on sprinklers and fire alarms is important but it only deals with only half of the problem," he adds. "People died in West Warwick because of the fire, but they were exposed to it partly because of the crowd crush."
This pattern also held true, he says, in the Iroquois Theater fire in Chicago in 1903, the Cocoanut Grove fire in Boston in 1942, and the Happy Land Social Club fire in New York in 1990.
Once a crowd crush begins, it's almost impossible to stop, and there's not much people can do to help themselves.
"People caught in a crowd crush behave as a liquid. No individual can control his or her movement or assist others close by," Pauls says. And outsiders can do little to help victims in crowd-crush situations. That's why it's so important to prevent them.
Joe Psuik, director of the San Diego Convention Center and a member of the NFPA Technical Committee on Assembly Occupancies, is a member of a task force created by the International Association for Assembly Managers (IAAM) after September 11, 2001, to write safety and security protocols for every type of large public assembly venue (www.iaam.org).
"One of the things we pay close attention to," says Psuik, "is crowd management and crowd control. Crowd management offers a clear measure of preparedness for large numbers of people coming to a single point. It helps define ingress and egress, staff training, and a clear sense of preparation—in case of emergency, who handles what area? There's the sense that when you come to crowd control, you're just about to the point of chaos, where you're about to lose the mechanics of managing the crowd. That's why crowd management is stressed."
Small nightclubs are not the only venues at risk of crowd-crush incidents. Crowd crushes have resulted in multiple deaths at soccer stadiums and religious gatherings, as well as at concerts in large venues. In 1979, for example, 11 people waiting outside Cincinnati's Riverfront Coliseum died when ticket holders rushed to the entrance in an effort to secure good seats for a concert by The Who.
Decades after The Who tragedy, injuries at pop concerts continue to rise. Wertheimer, who has collected statistics on the problem since 1995, points to several factors that are particularly worrisome to experts who manage pop culture crowds.
First, concertgoers accustomed to pyrotechnics and other special effects might not respond immediately to a real fire threat. A video of the Great White concert in West Warwick clearly shows a delay of movement toward the exits after the fire began. There was a similar delay during a dance hall fire that killed 63 young people and injured more than 200 in Gothenburg, Sweden, in 1998. Wertheimer notes that Swedish researchers later discovered many in the audience thought the fire was part of the act.
"Fans seem to be looking at the fire," Wertheimer says, "as critical seconds pass by."
A second common problem, says Wertheimer, is overcrowding.
"In most venues, you can put more people in the hall with standing room or ‘festival seating' than with fixed seats," he says. "But not all buildings designed for fixed seats can be converted safely to festival seating. Capacity should not be larger than it would be for fixed seating, and, in many cases, it shouldn't even be that large."
A third problem public assembly experts see in pop culture venues is the conversion of old buildings that were never designed for concerts.
"Old theaters pull up chairs so that they can get more people into the hall with standing room festival seating," Wertheimer says, "But they don't increase the minimum exits."
In addition, Pauls says, nightspots tend to spring up in areas of cities that have been abandoned by industries or other businesses.
"These kinds of facilities tend to be in areas that cities like to bring back to life, but many of these buildings—such as warehouses—weren't designed for places of assembly," he notes.
Wertheimer, who attends 27 to 30 rock concerts a year for professional and personal reasons, spends a lot of time in crowded venues of all sizes. He isn't impressed with what he sees.
"The potential for crowd crushes has never been fully addressed in the more than 50 years of concerts and festivals, since the first rock and roll show at the Cleveland Arena in 1952. We need to address them or accept that they will continue to happen, possibly more regularly. The environment is already there. Most of the time nothing goes wrong. But this doesn't mean the event was safe."
"Doing a show is finding a balance working with artists, fire marshals, and facilities," says G. Clark Parkhurst Jr., a licensed pyrotechnician and member of the NFPA Technical Committee for Special Effects. "Eventually, you try to work out some kind of compromise among all the parties involved. Sometimes, the compromise is not to do pyro."
In such cases, Parkhurst offers other types of special effects, such as fog machines and flash bulbs, which people can do on their own.
"I understand that the West Warwick incident has made people leery of special effects," Parkhurst says. "Hopefully, they'll talk to local authorities and other licensed professionals to work out what they need to continue utilizing them safely. It's an important aspect of many shows, and there are ways to work with the authorities to make sure everyone's on the same page."
While there are no national certification and licensing requirements for pyrotechnic operators, many states have implemented certification or licensing programs. Professional pyrotechnic companies have licenses issued by the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms, and Explosives concerning manufacturer and distribution of pyrotechnic materials.
NFPA 1126, Use of Pyrotechnics before a Proximate Audience, is the national consensus code applicable to indoor pyrotechnics as well as outdoor fireworks displays when the audience is "proximate" or closer than would be permitted for outdoor aerial fireworks displays. While NFPA 1126 hasn't been adopted in every state, the American Pyrotechnics Association deems this standard to be the prudent operator's definitive guide and urges members of the industry to strictly comply with the standard.
NFPA 1126 applies to the use of pyrotechnics in conjunction with theatrical, musical, or similar productions before a proximate audience, performers, or support personnel.
The first edition was published in 1992 and was developed by the Pyrotechnics Committee in response to a need for a document to provide guidance to public safety officials for the safe use of pyrotechnic special effects at both indoor and outdoor locations.
For the 1996 edition, several new definitions were added, including producer and venue manager. In addition, the requirements relating to labeling of pyrotechnic preloads was revised for clarity and conformance with the Manual of Style. Further revisions were made regarding the use of pyrotechnics incorporated the tentative interim amendment addressing measures to safeguard the safety of performers.
Facilities where pyrotechnics are to be used must comply with NFPA 101®, Life Safety Code® within assembly occupancies and the use of all pyrotechnics must be approved by the Authority Having Jurisdiction (AHJ). The AHJ determines if appropriate measures are established to provide acceptable crowd management, security, fire protection, and other emergency services. Planning and use of pyrotechnics must be coordinated with the venue manager and producer.
Before any performance, the permit holder must submit a written plan to the AHJ and it must include:
Plans must be submitted to AHJ no less than 24 hours before the event and a walk-through and demonstration are required with the AHJ present.
Operational requirements include
Complying with and enforcing code requirements
"The two big problems are compliance and enforcement. If two venues thousands of miles apart had complied with local laws or regulations, the deaths in Chicago and West Warwick wouldn't have happened," Wertheimer says.
On the enforcement side of the equation, Pauls says, "we're in a bind because we can write the best code in life safety, and it might not be adopted."
If it is, enforcement must be in place or the code is merely words on a page.
He points out that enforcement professionals "tend to be fire safety officials or consultants who simply may not have all of the background to deal with all the unique aspects of life safety associated with crowd management."
"Funding for infrastructure services, particularly fire prevention and inspection, has been decimated at the same time that the government, by official policy, is placing everyone in a heightened state of anxiety, increasing the chance of crowd crush," he says.
Even with budget cuts and other political pressures, Chief Fuller believes that fire departments "have a bit more authority than they think they do, and it has to be exercised."
"Adequate resources are always an issue," he says. "It's incumbent on fire chiefs to look at fire prevention and inspections that are conducted as part of their front line of defense. It's not easy. What one has to do is determine the value of fire suppression related to prevention. All too often, prevention is sacrificed in favor of fire apparatus."
And in West Warwick, says Chief Fuller, the fire apparatus were of no use at all.
"Preventing that fire was the only thing that was going to save those people," he says. "No firefighter was going to put that out. They couldn't get there in time."
Fuller adds that, in the aftermath of the two nightclub disasters, fire departments all over the country have found the resources to conduct spot inspections and close down clubs in violation of building ordinances.
"Doesn't that fly in the face of the arguments that we don't have the resources?" Fuller asks.
Awareness and education
As time passes and our attention turns to other national issues, what will we have learned that will help prevent future disasters in nightclubs like E2 and The Station? The answer may be surprisingly low-tech.
"As goofy as this may sound," says Chief Fuller, "what would be wrong if, before a band came on, the management came out and advised you that the exits are there, there, and there? Just like you hear before a movie. How hard would it be for teachers to talk for a half-hour to the kids about exits in the schools? It just seems that there are several opportunities and straightforward things we can do. People will be trying very hard to make it very complicated, with any number of excuses."
Research backs up the need for education and training.
"This is what we know: If you communicate and inform people in potential danger, they will respond in a reasonable and rational way most of the time," Wertheimer says. "When you don't communicate and you leave people up to their own devices, what you get is what happened in Chicago and West Warwick. People will do whatever they can to save their own lives."
For nearly 30 years, there have been requirements for the use of thermal barriers over foam plastic products so experts, like Frederick Mowrer of the department of fire protection engineering at the University of Maryland, are surprised that non-compliant installations of exposed foam plastics can continue to exist.
In May 1973, the Federal Trade Commission filed a complaint against two trade organizations and 25 companies involved in the manufacture, testing, marketing, and sale of foam plastic products. The complaint alleged that the parties were misrepresenting the flammability characteristics of foam plastic products based on inappropriate fire tests. In November 1974, a consent decree was reached and the respondents agreed to sponsor research on the ways to use the foam safely. Thermal barriers were an interim measure and all the model building codes during the 1970s adopted this requirement. That requirement, Mowrer says, remains unchanged today.
"But as evidenced by the recent fire at The Station nightclub, the use of exposed foam plastics continues to be a problem. It is difficult to assess the magnitude of this problem, but based on my experience I believe it is pervasive," Mowrer says.
Mowrer says there's confusion when it comes what constitutes a reasonably safe, code-complying application of foam plastic products.
"In my opinion, the unsafe misuse of foam plastic products in buildings continues to be a pervasive problem that is perpetuated by improper testing and misrepresentation of the flammability characteristics of these products. I strongly encourage NFPA to establish a special task force to investigate the scope and magnitude of this problem and to charge this task force with the development of recommendations that would help prevent the unsafe use of foam plastics in buildings," Mowrer says.
Media interviews with survivors of the E2 tragedy indicate that heightened sensitivity to the threat of a terrorist attack—the United States was under an orange security alert at the time—may have contributed to the rush to the exit. Other issues under investigation include locked, blocked, and chained doors; shoddy construction; narrow stairs; and poor exit lighting.
Among the issues Rhode Island officials are investigating are poor exiting arrangements, the combustibility of the soundproofing material, the use of pyrotechnics without permission and professional oversight, and the responsibility of club owners, band members, and enforcement authorities in providing safety in public places.
Alisa Wolf is a frequent contributor to NFPA Journal and John Nicholson is the managing editor of the NFPA Journal.
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