Author(s): Warren Burns. Published on July 1, 2017.

Sensory Overload

In a bid to one-up the competition, presenters of live events are boosting the experience with more volume and a dizzying array of visual effects. But what is the impact of all that spectacle on the systems and procedures intended to provide life safety?


But for those of us in the fire and life safety industry—fire protection engineers, fire code officials, fire protection designers, and other fire and life safety professionals—the challenge of working with production and performance companies to ensure the safety of assembly structures is always top of mind. When it comes to deciding which safety measures to incorporate in a performance setting, how much risk are you willing to accept? More importantly, do you have the ability to live with your decision?

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I have spent 35 years in the fire protection business—27 of those in the fire service, and 21 of those 27 in the fire prevention bureau of a medium-sized city in the state of Washington. Additionally, I spent eight years as a consultant for a large international fire protection and engineering company, addressing everything from fatality subrogation claims to fire investigations outside the United States to public assembly protection and retail occupancy fire and life safety. Throughout my career in the fire service I oversaw the fire protection requirements for an 8,000-seat hockey facility that could seat nearly 12,000 for concerts or special events. I inspected dozens of assembly occupancies holding anywhere from 60 to 1,000 occupants, with and without live entertainment or the sale of intoxicants. I’ve been vocal about the challenges the fire and life safety industry faces in finding ways to work with production and performance companies to educate them about the importance of incorporating safety measures into their plans for assembly structures to protect from disasters and liability.

An important trend faced by the industry is the growing intensity of the audio and visual capabilities in assembly occupancies, and what it can mean for occupant life safety. Louder, more encompassing sound literally surrounds listeners, coming at them from all directions at a force and volume that far surpasses those produced by home audio equipment. A range of visual effects, from strobes to holographs, likewise adds to the immersive quality of shows; 3-D technology, which utilizes individual user goggles to insert viewers “into” the viewed environment, has become so advanced that participants can easily lose their bearings in their real surroundings, which is essentially the intent of the producer. Pyrotechnics, sometimes on stage, sometimes throughout the venue, create a sense of immersion and involvement not possible in the comfort of a home theater.

What used to be simple matters of requiring audible notification to be louder than ambient sound, and visual notification to be visible throughout the venue, are now not only insufficient but nearly impossible to achieve in many venues. Red or green exit lights are lost in the panorama of visual entertainment provided for our enjoyment. The need to entertain, along with the need to protect, have both grown dramatically over the last 20 years, but guess which one frequently gets first pull at the owner’s pocket?

Band rocks out on a stage with a killer light show going on in the background.

Pump up the Volume Rock shows routinely approach 120 decibels—the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health says the maximum safe exposure to 110 decibels is less than 90 seconds. Safety experts say venues need to be able to quickly reduce or shut off the stage sound in an emergency to allow patrons to hear emergency messaging. Photograph: Ollie Millington/Redferns via Getty Images

These new and emerging entertainment technologies pose significant challenges to safety professionals. Utilizing NFPA 101®, Life Safety Code®, however, we can provide an acceptable level of fire and life safety without hindering the performance standards of entertainment venues. Without question, adhering to the code is a step in the right direction. Assisting venue managers and show producers with their understanding and application of the codes is also a positive step.

Bigger, louder, brighter

Assembly occupancy managers can intentionally or inadvertantly create unsafe conditions in their facilities. They may ignore or delay replacement of burned out exit lights or leave obstructions in egress pathways. To discourage gatecrashing, some may intentionally block exits without realizing the impact this could have on emergency egress. Common denominators involving death or injury in these venues include lack of sprinklers, blocked or restricted exits, disabled voice announcement capabilities, and a lack of proper training of crowd managers. But if we apply the three E's of fire prevention—engineering, enforcement, and education—to address such problems, it stands to reason that the chances of an incident occurring that results in deaths or injuries would be greatly reduced.

If only this were the case. The minimal threat of penalty for ignoring fire code violations compared to the very real and immediate expense of correcting them causes some operators to continue to ignore the issues and, far too often, adopt an “until we get caught” mentality. The increasing need to raise the stakes for live entertainment—to offer something that on-demand or Internet-accessed entertainment simply can’t provide—can mean that maintaining profitability is at odds with maintaining elements of life safety.

Massive sound and corresponding lighting effects have become de rigueur for presenters. An assortment of musical acts, from heavy metal bands to electronic dance music performers, have produced live sound measured at more than 130 dB, which rivals or surpasses the sound of a jet engine at close proximity. By comparison, a sound of 150 dB is sufficient to rupture eardrums; loud rock concerts routinely approach 120 db, which is 32 times louder than a 70 dB conversation in a restaurant. A normal speaking voice is about 60 dB. Any sound over 100 dB is considered to be “extremely unpleasant.” NFPA 72®, National Fire Alarm and Signaling Code, paragraph, states that ambient sound pressure levels with all audible notification appliances operating shall not exceed 110 dB at the minimum hearing distance.

Large venues are challenged to provide what they deem as acceptable (and what we in the industry consider as painful) sound levels to patrons sitting in the furthest reaches of the setting, ensuring they have an experience as memorable as the one for patrons on the floor. Increasing the numbers and locations of speakers exacerbates the problem, causing the sound level to be maintained throughout the venue with no area of decreased volume. Speaker manufacturers and builders are pushing the envelope on how much sound can be produced. More precise magnets, adjusting the mass of the cone and other moving parts, the shape, area, and displacement of the cone, and even the shape of the box itself are driving decibel levels to newer, more painful heights. Keep in mind that volume is truly a measure of pressure and that loud volumes can create actual pressure, which may even be felt by some as the unnatural—and disorienting—movement of their internal organs.

Laser lights, once the cutting edge of visual entertainment, are now either commonplace or overshadowed by computer-generated effects that define the latest immersive experience. Groups and series of lights choreographed to sound, virtual “fireworks” that impede our ability to recognize reality, and 3-D technology that can disorient viewers to the point of losing their balance are considered by many producers as keys to rave reviews and larger box-office receipts. The same lights that are used to fade in or out of a song can easily be confused, however, with emergency strobe lights. Lights and sounds designed in concert to lead the audience into seeing, hearing, and believing what doesn’t really exist are the new edge. In the past, the fear of triggering seizure activity through the use of strobe lights was among the greatest risks in entertainment lighting. The race is on for more effective ways to disorient perfectly healthy viewers simply to enhance the intensity of their viewing experience.

Engineering, enforcement, and education

Subsections 12.4.8 and 13.4.8 of NFPA 101 require that illumination be increased and conflicting sounds or visuals be terminated in special amusement buildings when an emergency condition is identified. But with music this loud and lighting this distracting, do we know for certain that the operators of those media will even know there is an emergency? This information needs to be communicated to a show’s producer, lighting and sound technicians, and performers. All parties need to be aware of the requirements and consequences associated with not adhering to codes.

It is for this reason that NFPA 101 mandates use of the Life Safety Evaluation, or LSE, for these types of venues. The LSE makes it imperative that the venue have a robust plan that considers myriad hazards and response scenarios, including the means and methods to address attendee notification and messaging strategies when a problem arises. It’s important to remember that fire alarm signals are required to be sent to a constantly attended location—there are exceptions, but we need to concentrate on the requirements of subsections 12.4.8 and 13.4.8 that best safeguard occupants.

Imagine an emergency situation in a large entertainment venue hosting a live-music event. With very loud sound (in excess of 115 dB) and state-of-the-art lighting and visual effects, we can assume that a standard code-compliant fire alarm system will be largely ineffective at notifying the occupants of an emergency situation. Sound for the concert is mixed at a central location that controls overall volume to the crowd; requiring a notification appliance such as a horn/strobe device to be located at the sound board would alert the engineers to an emergency, and they would be required to automatically reduce the output volume upon activation of the device. Requirements would also specify whether the necessary information for patrons would be communicated via a pre-recorded message or by the engineers with a microphone and instructions on what to announce.

Similarly, house lighting, for both the stage and the room, is typically controlled from a central location, usually backstage. As with requirements for sound, a horn/strobe and a thorough set of instructions on what to turn on and off would be required to address any issues with ambient lighting. Special-effects lighting could be controlled at either the sound or lighting location, or at its own location, with its own notification device and set of instructions for operators. If we add certification requirements for the operators and functional testing of each notification device prior to every show, we will achieve the desired level of safety for the venue.

DJs perform to a packed house.

Listen Up Requiring a notification appliance such as a horn/strobe device to be located at the soundboard of a live performance would alert the engineers to an emergency. Photograph: Steven Lawton/Getty Images

Can we require a venue to place a qualified attendant at the constantly attended location? Of course we can. Depending upon the jurisdiction, we may be able to require trained fire department personnel to be stationed there at the owner’s expense. Can we require sight and sound technicians to have proper training on how to react to a fire condition? Of course we can. Can we require a visual notification device to be installed at both the lighting and the sound control locations? Can we also offer certification training for operators, training for qualified crowd managers and attendants, and permit fee reductions for installation of these additional devices? Of course we can.

Event Safety Resources®, Life Safety Code®:
includes the Life Safety Evaluation, a tool included in NFPA 101 geared toward designers, managers, and inspectors of event facilities. It also references a number of areas that are critically important to responders.
The Event Safety Alliance® is an organization dedicated to promoting life safety throughout all phases of event production and execution. The group publishes the Event Safety Guide, a resource directed specifically at the live event industry that compiles the best operational practices and draws on existing life safety standards and the insights of industry professionals.
The Entertainment Services and Technology Association is an industry group whose mission includes increasing safety through the development of standards and certifications..

Had the performers, producers, and support staff at The Station nightclub in Rhode Island been aware of these needs and been trained to react appropriately, it is possible that some if not all of the 100 lives tragically lost in a catastrophic fire that night in 2003 could have been saved. All parties need to understand how the signal for an emergency condition is transmitted to the sound technician, lighting technician, and performers, and what actions need to be taken to keep the attendees safe. Too often, however, sound and lighting technicians are not trained to react appropriately in the event of a fire emergency. This type of education, or lack thereof, is not readily identifiable in the random inspections performed by enforcing agencies. The Facility Management and Operational Plan, a component of the LSE, requires the communication channels and authority between all of these related parties to be clearly defined.

While incorporating safety measures in assembly occupancies can be a challenge, developing a mutual understanding between the fire and life safety industry, code officials, the performance industry, and venue operators is a critical step to ensure attendees have a memorable experience while staying safe. The fire and life safety industry must appreciate the evolving nature of the entertainment industry and work to establish solutions that complement the goals of the performance companies. Engineers can provide the best possible suppression and detection systems and enforcers can remain as diligent as possible in enforcing the prescriptive codes designed to provide adequate fire and life safety—but the next step in this journey is the education of venue operators, owners, managers, producers, and technician, to bring into focus the role they must play in safeguarding their attendees.

Solving this problem will require the three E’s: engineering, to keep up with emerging technology and continue to provide the best solutions for fixed fire protection and detection; enforcement, to constantly remind the operators that this is an issue they cannot ignore; and education, to help operators understand the issues and be part of the solution. Like most issues in fire safety, enforcing will only reach those we can see and will only last as long as we continue to look. Telling someone to do something can be marginally effective; teaching them to do it and explaining the importance of doing so can translate into better compliance and retention rates.

As newer, brighter, bigger, louder, and more spectacular ways emerge to enliven the performances we enjoy, we need to put equal or greater effort into the safety side of that equation. Safety at any venue must continue to be a selling point, and it will require the action, effort, and motivation of all stakeholders. Can you really say that effort is too great to take on? I can’t.

WARREN BURNS is regional practice leader at Telgian Engineering & Consulting. He currently sits on the technical committee for NFPA 1221, Installation, Maintenance, and Use of Emergency Services Communications Systems. Top Photograph: Tom Donoghue/Polaris