Assembly occupancy fires that wrote NFPA 101
Learn about some of the historic fires that helped formulate NFPA 101: Life Safety Code
- Understand the unique challenges and constantly changing risk landscape associated with high-density assembly occupancies such as bars and nightclubs.
- Review contributing factors in three assembly fires and how the codes changed to prevent similar incidents in the future.
- Learn about the intent behind NFPA 101: Life Safety Code and other codes for assembly occupancies.
Assembly occupancy insights:
- Several fires at locations with high occupancy or poor life safety systems helped create NFPA 101: Life Safety Code.
- Assembly occupancies are characterized by a higher density of people than other types of occupancies, and must conform to strict standards.
In jurisdictions across the United States and even internationally, the adoption of NFPA 101: Life Safety Code defines the minimum standards required in buildings to protect occupants in the event of a fire. The code includes a robust chapter on assembly occupancies, which are typically characterized by a higher occupant density than other types of occupancies. Many of those requirements originated similarly in response to horrific fires that occurred in these occupancies, highlighting the need for improved life safety.
Assembly occupancies present a unique challenge in fire protection and life safety with their high occupant loads and occupant densities. They often have occupants that are not familiar with the entire building layout and exit locations. They often have events where lights may be dimmed, alcohol may be served and occupants may be impaired.
In some cases, the facility may be used for different types of events that change the landscape of risk from one day to the next. Unfortunately, one of the best ways to learn how to protect these high-occupancy facilities is to study what went wrong in the past when they had fires and improve design to mitigate those issues.
We will cover some of the historic fires and the code requirements they inspired that still exist in NFPA 101.
Life safety in Cocoanut Grove
One of the most well-known assembly fires in U.S. history was the Cocoanut Grove Restaurant and Supper Club in Boston. The building located at 17 Piedmont Street was a single-story building with a basement and a very popular hangout spot during the 1930s and early ‘40s. The club’s basement contained a bar called the Melody Lounge along with kitchens, freezers and and storage areas. The main dining room above occupied the first floor along with a ballroom, bandstand and several additional bar areas.
On Nov. 28, 1942, the Cocoanut Grove was packed. In the Melody Lounge, a busser attempted to replace a light bulb located inside an artificial palm tree and used a lighter to see what he was doing. Moments later patrons noticed a fire in the palm tree that rapidly spread across the Melody Lounge, fueled by the flammable décor. Customers began streaming for the basement’s only public exit, a single 4-foot-wide set of stairs that led to the foyer on the first floor.
However, the fire quickly traversed the ceiling of the Melody Lounge and moved up the stairs into the lobby where frantic patrons were attempting to escape. The main entrance was a revolving door and as people rushed to exit, the door became jammed with people crushed against it by the rush. Sadly, 492 people perished that night because of the fire.
The lighting — and lack thereof — was an issue from the start and the occupants who were able to locate alternative exits found that the doors swung inward. This caused people to crush against them making it impossible to pull them open.
As a result, NFPA 101 now requires emergency exit doors to swing in the direction of egress for assembly occupancies and requires illuminated emergency exit signs to help patrons find exits even when the power fails. Fire sprinkler protection requirements for assembly occupancies meeting certain occupant load thresholds were also added.
More importantly, the first edition of NFPA’s Building Exits Code, which was written 15 years before the fire, gained traction as U.S. cities adopted it and codified it into law. In its current iteration as today’s NFPA 101, it still has requirements for revolving doors to have swinging doors adjacent to them and for the revolving doors to have collapsible wings to prevent the bottlenecking that occurred at the revolving door of the Cocoanut Grove.
Beverly Hills Supper Club
On Saturday, May 28, 1977, the Beverly Hills Supper Club in Southgate, Kentucky, was crowded with more than 2,000 patrons when a fire broke out. The official cause of the fire was determined to be electrical in nature. The building did not have sprinkler protection and the fire spread rapidly throughout the sprawling facility that covered over 65,000 square feet across its 19 rooms on two floors.
This facility had undergone multiple renovations and additions over its lifetime, but these renovations never included the addition of a fire alarm or automatic sprinkler system. The only fire protection equipment available were portable fire extinguishers. When staff noticed a fire in one of the smaller party rooms, they immediately notified management.
However, with no fire alarm system, there was no means of detection or effective way to notify everyone in the numerous meeting rooms, party rooms, bars and the overcrowded Cabaret Room where a musical performance was about to begin. Staff began notifying patrons to leave in the various bars and party rooms as they became aware of the fire.
However, it is estimated that it took 20 minutes before an employee in the Cabaret Room learned of the fire and interrupted the performance to notify occupants to evacuate.
At capacity, the more than 1,000 occupants of the Cabaret Room had access to three separate exits. However, due to the lost time in notifying the guests, two exits quickly became blocked by smoke and flames forcing the entire mass of people to a single exit. Of the fire’s 164 fatalities, 99 were in the Cabaret Room. The entire complex was destroyed by the fire and the more than 500 firefighters that responded didn’t succeed in completely extinguishing the blaze until the following Monday, May 30, 1977.
Several factors contributed to the severity of the fire and the high loss of life. Once again, combustible décor was identified as a contributing factor was along with inadequate egress in the Cabaret Room, the absence of a fire alarm system and the absence of a fire sprinkler system. Regarding the issue of inadequate egress, the code officials had noted this in plan reviews, but had allowed the club owner to obtain the certificate of occupancy before the deficiencies in egress were rectified.
Once the club became operational, the owner never did correct those deficiencies. One of the noted egress issues was that there were not enough exits in the Cabaret Room, where most of the victims were found.
As a result of this fire, the following edition of NFPA 101 included several changes. Both new and existing assembly occupancies with occupant loads exceeding 300 were required to have a fire alarm system with voice messages for occupant notification. In addition, new assembly occupancies with occupant loads exceeding 300, regardless of the building construction type, were required for the first time to be protected with an automatic fire sprinkler system (with some specific exemptions to the requirements).
The Station Nightclub
On Feb. 21, 2004, a horrific scene unfolded in West Warwick, Rhode Island. The Station Nightclub had lived many lives as a restaurant, nightclub, pub and tavern. At the time of the fire, the facility was used as a nightclub and was hosting a Great White concert in the club area, which was separate from the bar area.
The building had a fire alarm system but did not have an automatic sprinkler system. Egress from the facility included a main entrance served by a 6-foot-wide corridor with openings into the bar and the club area. This entry corridor created an egress pinch point at the main entrance. Additional exits were available adjacent to the stage in the club and adjacent to the horseshoe-shaped main bar area. A final exit was available from the kitchen.
Due to noise complaints, insulating expanded foam material had been applied to the club’s interior walls around the drummer’s alcove and throughout the raised stage area. It is not known how far into the club the insulation extended.
During the band’s performance, pyrotechnic devices called gerbs (which deliver a stream of sparks) were activated on the stage. They ignited the foam insulation that was used as interior finish to dampen the noise. The fire grew rapidly and the main entrance corridor became choked with people. As people collapsed in the main entrance, patrons began piling up on top of and behind people that had collapsed in the passageway from the heat and toxic smoke that filled the facility. Ultimately, the fire’s death toll would land at 100 people.
While NFPA 101 had already included requirements for interior finishes, they were not enforced in this building. This is one of the contributing factors of the fire and large death toll. However, due to this fire, NFPA 101 was updated with new requirements for egress, sprinklers and the use of indoor pyrotechnics. The most notable code change was the requirement for mandatory sprinklers in Group A-2 occupancies where the occupant load is 100 or more (it was previously 300 or more).
As noted above, a new section was added to NFPA 101 restricting the use of open flames and pyrotechnics in assembly occupancies without the approval of the authority having jurisdiction. This approval would ensure that satisfactory precautions have been taken and the pyrotechnics comply with NFPA 1126: Standard for the Use of Pyrotechnics before a Proximate Audience.
Ultimately, the biggest change to NFPA 101 following the Station Nightclub fire were the requirements for the main entrance/exit width. Previously, the main entrance and exits were required to accommodate 50% of the building occupancy for this type of assembly. The changes increased the required width of the main entrance/exit to accommodate at least two-thirds of the total occupant load for bars with live entertainment, dance halls, discotheques, nightclubs and assembly occupancies with festival seating.
In addition, the other exits were required to accommodate at least half of the building occupancy. Therefore, for these types of assembly occupancies, the total egress capacity is required to be more than 100% of the occupant load.
In conclusion, tragedy can be a very harsh teacher. The unique risks related to high occupant loads and the constantly changing risk landscape of assembly occupancies require that we remember these hard lessons as we apply and enforce the requirements of NFPA 101. To protect occupants in these types of assemblies, all components of active and passive fire protection must be in place. This includes design of adequate and compliant egress systems, interior finish classifications, automatic sprinkler protection and fire alarm systems with detection and occupant notification.
These requirements in NFPA 101 ensure that we take these lessons with us into the future for assembly occupancy design and construction.