Published on May 20, 2014.

Spooky + Safe

Code changes prompted by the Haunted Castle fire were far-reaching

Despite the controversy around some of the trial testimony and the subsequent analysis of the fire, the Haunted Castle incident prompted several changes to NFPA 101®, Life Safety Code®.

In the 1988 edition, a new section, “Special Provisions for Special Amusement Buildings,” was added. It required every special amusement building, such as the Haunted Castle, to be “protected throughout by an approved automatic sprinkler system” that is properly installed and maintained. If the building was portable or moveable, the “sprinkler water supply may be by an approved temporary means.”

If the amusement building had low lighting levels, the code required that it be equipped with a smoke detection system, the activation of which would sound an alarm at “a constantly attended location on the premises.” The actuation of either the smoke detection system or the sprinkler system would “cause the illumination in the means of egress to increase” and silence any “conflicting or confusing sounds and visuals.”

In buildings where mazes, mirrors, or other features were used “to confound the egress path,” approved directional exit marking that “will become apparent in an emergency” must be installed. The code also required the installation of low-level exit signs.

Further, the interior wall and ceiling finishes were required to have a flame spread rating of 0 to 25 and a smoke developed rating of 0 to 450.  Materials tested to these criteria would minimize the propagation of fire.

These requirements have been refined and expanded over the years, but their intent remains the same as when they first entered the code. They can be found in the current edition of the Life Safety Code.

Enforcing these regulatory provisions on modern era structures that fit into the “special amusement building” category can be a challenge, however. At most of the multi-seasonal or year-round amusement parks with permanent structures in place, such as Disney, Six Flags, and Universal, the enforcement approach is easier, since the structures stay in one location, making application and enforcement of the code provisions much more likely. In addition, permanent water supplies and electrical services are purpose-built, allowing for the installation of sprinkler systems, fire alarm systems, smoke control systems, and related features to protect visitors.
“The enforcement challenge often presents itself in those venues that fall in the special amusement building category, particularly when they may only be open for a few days or few weeks during the year,” according to Robert Solomon, division manager of NFPA’s Building & Life Safety Codes. “From the community haunted house to the town carnival to the county and state fair, the attractions can be harder to evaluate. NFPA documents like NFPA 1, Fire Code, insert a wide span of control over all these settings.”

One provision requires a permit to operate a carnival or fair, and the permitting provisions entail a thorough review of the site, touching on everything from emergency vehicle access and the arrangement of stands, concession booths, and exhibits, to control of hazardous conditions, the use of stand-by fire personnel, and the regulation of electrical equipment.
While NFPA has no definitive information as to what percentage of these structures actually have all, some, or none of the safety features mandated by the codes, statistics would indicate that awareness, enforcement, and mindfulness of the potential hazards are being addressed, Solomon says. “Our data indicates that fires in these venues is a rare occurrence, and fires involving civilian injury or death are all but nonexistent,” he says.

Still, he sounds a cautionary note regarding these types of occupancies. “No matter which side of the Haunted Castle fire argument you come down on, the very public debate and the hard lessons it raised both within and outside of NFPA are reminders that tragic fires can occur in places where we should be having fun,” Solomon says. “Automatic sprinklers still provide the foundation for protection in these locations and allow both the local community and corporate operators of these structures to keep us all safe."