Author(s): Angelo Verzoni. Published on May 1, 2019.

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After a deadly blaze in New York City, experts stress the importance of fire safety on movie and TV sets

BY ANGELO VERZONI

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When New York City firefighters responded to a blaze in a Harlem townhouse on March 22, 2018, they reportedly didn’t understand the gravity of the situation they were about to find themselves in.

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According to reports, firefighters thought they were responding to a routine fire in an abandoned basement. In reality, a movie production company had converted the basement into a set consisting of a maze of fake walls adorned with decorations containing highly combustible plastics—in other words, the fire was anything but routine.

After veteran firefighter Michael Davidson entered the basement, he became separated from his fellow firefighters amidst the movie set’s warren of fake walls. Overcome by the dense, toxic smoke exploding from the flaming walls and set decorations, Davidson’s oxygen tank emptied. By the time he was found, it was too late to save him. Davidson, 37, a firefighter for 15 years, left behind a wife and four children.

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Read “Filming in California,” the Office of the California State Fire Marshal’s fire protection handbook for motion picture and TV sets.

While the New York City Fire Department (FDNY) has said the fire was caused by a broken boiler in the building, others suspect the production company unknowingly tampered with the building’s electrical system, sparking the fire.

This March, just over a year after the fire, FDNY released a 117-page report on the incident, which established the claim that firefighters were unaware they were responding to a movie set fire and cited set materials as a contributing factor in Davidson’s death. According to the Associated Press, the FDNY report found that the highly combustible set decorations fueled the flames, while the fake walls concealed the fire’s true severity as firefighters entered the basement. Multiple lawsuits have been filed against the city and the production company behind the movie, actor and filmmaker Edward Norton’s Class 5 Productions. An article published in the online magazine Deadline Hollywood said the incident “serves as a cautionary tale worth absorbing by anyone who engages in location shoots for movies and TV shows.”

Experts involved in overseeing safety on movie and television sets agree. And in recent interviews with NFPA Journal, they stressed the importance of following the guidelines outlined in documents like NFPA 140, Standard on Motion Picture and Television Production Studio Soundstages, Approved Production Facilities, and Production Locations, and embracing training opportunities to prevent future incidents like the one that occurred in Harlem.

“These aren’t just movie or TV sets,” said Alan Rowe, safety and training director for the International Alliance of Theatrical and Stage Employees Local 728 union in Hollywood, California. “This is an industrial process and that requires all the necessary safety steps to be taken.”

PROTECTING ‘MOBILE CITIES’

While movie set fires are relatively uncommon—only about 10 occur each year, according to NFPA data—they have been a concern for decades.

“Motion picture sets, built to simulate actual street blocks and scenes, are not required to follow building code laws,” an article published in Fire Engineering magazine in 1952 said. “Sets are constructed and broken down and moved around the lot so frequently that no system for regulating them for fire control has so far been established. Flimsy and highly combustible film properties are necessary for ease of handling, which results in construction of the sets of light material, usually lumber…Moreover, the inside area of makebelieve buildings is frequently used to store costumes and other flammable paraphernalia which goes into the making of movies.”

Today, more resources exist for protecting movie and television sets from fires than in the 1950s, such as NFPA 140. But sets still challenge authorities having jurisdiction (AHJs), given their complex nature and the fact that most AHJs have little to no experience with them, Rowe said. “A lot of fire safety professionals have no idea what they’re getting into, and production is occurring all over the country,” not just in traditional entertainment hotbeds like Los Angeles and New York, he said. “Each set is basically a mobile city.”

Rowe, who has worked on the sets of popular television series like Parks and Recreation, explained that multiple fire hazards exist on sets. There are ones that might readily come to mind, such as electrical systems, portable generators, and the use of special effects and pyrotechnics, he said. But there are also less-obvious ones, like catering companies on set using open flames to heat food.

What NFPA 140 accomplishes, essentially, is taking these areas of potential risk and pointing users to the applicable NFPA document for each. It says, for example, that electrical systems on set must comply with NFPA 70®, National Electrical Code®, means of egress with NFPA 101®, Life Safety Code®, and pyrotechnics with NFPA 1126, Standard for the Use of Pyrotechnics Before a Proximate Audience.

In 2013, Rowe spoke with NFPA Journal for a “Perspectives” interview about safety on movie and television sets, as well as on theater stages, in which he gave an example of how the NEC has been used on Hollywood sets.

“There was some misinformation about grounding requirements [on sets] and the Los Angeles County Fire Department didn’t know how to enforce it,” he said in the interview. “Inspectors were not uniformly enforcing regulations.” So Rowe, LA County Fire officials, and others got together to come up with guidelines based on relevant parts of the NEC, which were then adopted by the Contract Services Administration Trust Fund, a nonprofit that administers training and safety information to the movie and television industry.

The fact that AHJs in Los Angeles, the epicenter of the country’s film and television industry, were unclear on how to enforce the NEC on sets as recently as six years ago, exposes the other challenge to protecting these already-complex areas: AHJs simply don’t have experience with them. “Our industry is different,” Rowe said. “Our terminology is different. Our hierarchy of control is different, and can change from one job to the next.”

That’s why efforts like the one being driven by the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection (CAL FIRE) are essential. Since 1987, CAL FIRE has maintained the Office of the State Fire Marshal Motion Picture & Entertainment Unit. The unit was created about five years after three actors died while filming the Twilight Zone: The Movie. During the filming of one scene, a helicopter was flying above actor Vic Morrow and two child actors when heat from pyrotechnics reportedly warped the chopper’s blades, sending it crashing to the ground and killing the three actors instantly.

“That event sent quite the shockwave through the motion picture industry,” said Ramiro Rodriguez, a deputy state fire marshal with CAL FIRE, who is the fifth person to lead the Motion Picture & Entertainment Unit. “That’s what prompted the state of California and the motion picture industry to say, ‘Someone should have been able to foresee this.’” At the same time, there was concern among the movie and television industry over inconsistent enforcement of fire safety regulations on sets, he said, creating the perfect environment for the establishment of such a unit.

Today, the unit trains and certifies members of the California fire service—as well as any interested public safety professional—on fire safety on sets, Rodriguez said. It accomplishes this through working closely with the California Film Commission, local film commissions, and entertainment industry insiders, he said. A video from CAL FIRE—humorously produced in the style of a blockbuster movie trailer—shows the training in action, with flaming stuntmen being extinguished and flame effects being shot off in a parking lot as a crowd that’s mostly donning firefighter hats and jackets looks on.

The ultimate goal of the Motion Picture & Entertainment Unit, Rodriguez said, is to grow the state’s pool of qualified motion picture and television set fire safety officers (FSOs), who serve as the bridge between production and fire safety on sets. “The fire safety officer is responsible to prevent and abate fire and life safety hazards on motion picture and television sets,” he said. “Whether operating in an approved production facility or at an approved production location, it is imperative for the FSO to work continuously and collectively with production officials, including the gaffer responsible for portable power distribution and lighting on set, the special effects coordinator, the stunt coordinator, the prop weapons handler, and, when applicable, the aerial unit coordinator to ensure public safety and a safe film production experience.”

About a month after the FDNY report on the Harlem fire was released, the story again made headlines. This time, it was because Norton’s Class 5 Productions had filed its own lawsuit against the owner of the building where the blaze occurred. The suit alleges negligence on the owner’s part for “failing to maintain the building’s boiler, maintain an operational sprinkler system, install or maintain smoke detectors or carbon monoxide detectors, and address exposed wiring and other electrical hazards,” according to an article published April 17 on cinemablend.com, a news source for the entertainment industry.

In a reversal of what had been previously reported, the article said the lawsuit also claims “Norton and his crew had the proper permits from the FDNY, and were not warned of any ‘unsafe or problematic’ conditions at their shooting site.” Earlier reportage implied no permits had been given. And nor did they need to be, one article in the Chicago Tribune said, because filming was occurring on private property.

Regardless of what sparked the blaze and who may have been at fault, the most jarring detail from the FDNY report remains the claim that firefighters didn’t know they were responding to a fire on a movie set. According to Deadline Hollywood, New York City’s Office of Media and Entertainment has said it will review its permitting process after the incident “to ensure that the FDNY will have adequate information about proposed filming activity to determine if there are fire safety concerns.”

ANGELO VERZONI is staff writer for NFPA Journal. Top Photograph: Newscom