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Because the busboy in the Cocoanut Grove fire lit a match in the basement area of the nightclub, the code changes also called for the prohibition on using basement areas for assembly.
When firemen did get into the building, they were impeded again by overturned tables. The new code addressed that by ordering that tables be secured to the floor.
Limitations were placed on materials that could be used in furnishings to ensure they were as fire-resistant as possible.
This also included the finishes on tables, chairs and other furnishings. The rapid spread of these fires and the thick smoke that blinded patrons, were due to the finishes used on the furniture and decorations. The fire codes were changed, however, the enforcement of that code is particularly hard to enforce. The Station fire many years later was caused by the pyrotechnics igniting foam insulation that was being used as a sound absorption material on the walls. This foam was not meant for that purpose; it is a packing material. The code change addressed this issue, but it is difficult to control the application of materials and decorations on walls after construction. Even periodic fire inspections may not catch everything (Geren 1).
Subsequent to the two fires in the early 1940s, the new codes also designated both restaurants and nightclubs as public assembly areas. This led, eventually, to the requirement for sprinkler systems, and exits lit by emergency lighting.
In 2003 the International Building Code set requirements for trim and decorations to include curtains, draperies and other items that might be hanging from walls and ceilings. Codes also set requirements for materials applied to floors. The codes became so specific that they set thickness requirements for finishes and exempted those that were less than .036 thick (Geren 1).
Fire Tragedies Propagated by Finishes (Geren 3)
Location Date Deaths Contributing Finish
Cocoanut Grove Nightclub, Boston, Massachusetts,
Nov. 28, 1942.
492 Paper decorations
Beverly Hills Supper Club, Southgate, Kentucky,
May 28, 1977
164 Concealed, combustible ceiling tile
DuPont Hotel and Casino, San Juan, Puerto Rico,
Dec. 31, 1986
96 Wall finishes
Happy Land Social Club, New York City, New York, Mar. 25, 1990
87 Wood paneling on wood studs
The Station, West Warwick, Rhode Island,
Feb. 20, 2003
100 Foam insulation for sound absorption
One of the most fundamental findings of President Truman's Conference, as stated by the chairman of that committee, in referring to the Cocoanut Grove and Rhythm fires, was the following:
"It has been brought to the attention of this Committee that some of the recent fires resulting in a large loss of life were caused by a lack of proper inspection, rather than a lack of adequate statutes or ordinances. In too many instances, insurance companies, rather than public officials, have, as a matter of political necessity, taken the lead in inspection work. Perhaps one cause of inadequate enforcement of fire prevention regulations has been lack of a properly controlled discretion in local building officials to pass upon questions of compliance with building codes" (Committee on Laws and Law Enforcement 10).
They recommended as "essential" the formulation of ordinances to give authority to appropriate building and inspection officers to enforce appropriate building and fire standards and to be able to pass or fail buildings based on their meeting those standards. Until this standard was met, believe it or not, no such authority existed.
Codes and Laws After The Station Fire
Since all the codes we have described above were adopted prior to The Station Fire, a major investigation was launched within one week of this fire by the National Institute of Safety and Technology (NIST). The bottom line is that the investigation concluded that the adherence to the 2003 codes may not have prevented the fire but would have gone a long way towards saving lives.
NIST developed ten recommendations that would make nightclubs safer for occupants and would enhance the codes passed in 2003. It must be remembered that the state and local jurisdictions must adopt ordinances and pass laws to enforce any fire safety recommendations. NIST has no regulatory authority. Some states and municipalities have passed these recommendations into law -- others have not.
Some of the more significant NIST recommendations to states and municipalities follow (Newman 1):
Adopt comprehensive building and fire codes which include coverage of nightclubs and public assembly areas.
Implement aggressive fire inspection and enforcement programs
Ensure enough well-qualified fire and building inspectors are available
"Recommendations 2 and 3 address the use of automatic fire sprinkler systems for extinguishing fires in nightclubs and limiting the flammability of materials used as finish products to prevent such fires in the first place (Newman 1).
"Recommendation 6 addresses portable fire extinguishers, calling for a better understanding of the numbers, placement locations, and staff training required to ensure their effective use.
"Recommendation 7 calls for developing and implementing effective and interoperable communications for mass casualty events within and between first responder organizations. Again, NIST recommends that state and local jurisdictions adopt existing model standards on communications, mutual aid, command structure and staffing.
"Finally, recommendations 8 through 10 address critically needed research to serve as the basis for further improvements in codes, standards and practices" (Newman 1).
New indoor fireworks legislation is being offered and passed in a number of states as a result of The Station fire, as well as the Chicago nightclub fire in 2003 that killed 21 people. Nightclub fires in Buenos Aires (2004, 192 dead), and Luoyang, China (2000, 309 dead) and Bangkok, Thailand (2008, 61 dead) also had an impact on passing legislation. Many people are being killed, not by the smoke and fire, but by the stampede of people trying to escape through inadequate exits.
It is ironic that Rhode Island had an indoor fireworks ordinance in place before their tragic nightclub fire. It required a permit from local fire authorities. Because it was bypassed by the participants, tragedy resulted. Now Rhode Island legislators are looking into other aspects of fire safety, such as requiring sprinklers in any public assembly building. Many of the laws being passed, however, have "grandfather" clauses that allow buildings and businesses to operate under the laws that were in effect when the building was built. That was the reason The Station nightclub had no sprinklers when 100 people were killed and many more were injured.
There are at least five other states that have laws requiring permits before indoor fireworks are allowed -- South Carolina, Minnesota, Indiana, Connecticut and Texas. It is almost impossible to track this figure because of the local nature of such ordinances -- by town, city, county, or state. But in most cases, rather than ban indoor fireworks, permits must be obtained -- the same kind of permit that was necessary before the Rhode Island fire!
In general, though, state legislatures are passing packages of laws as a result of The Station fire. There usually include provisions for:
Mandating sprinkler systems
Creating stiffer penalties for nightclubs going over capacity limits including mandating sprinkler systems or shutting down on the second offense.
Increasing financial incentives for businesses, clubs and buildings that comply by accelerating their tax burden depreciation significantly.
Establishing must stiffer penalties for dangerous infractions of fire codes which can include very large fines and/or time in prison.
Increasing state funding for fire awareness programs for students
Though the nightclub fires have struck a chord with legislators, it is easy to see that there is no reason another disaster could not occur. It is the enforcement of all of these recommendations, ordinances, laws, regulations, etc. that matters. Thorough inspections, heavy penalties, and frequent and comprehensive review of requirements with inspectors having appropriate enforcement authority are the answers. No amount of legislation will be effective without enforcement. That is the sad tale of most nightclub fires around the globe.
Beitler, S. "Natchez, MS Rhythm Nightclub Fire, April 1940." 9 November 2007. Gendisasters.com (from The Delta Democrat-Times Greenville Mississippi 1940-04-24). 12 July 2009
Celebrateboston.com. "Cocoanut Grove Fire." 2009. Celebrateboston.com. 12 July 2009
CNN. "At least 996 killed in nightclub inferno." 21 February 2003. CNN.com. 12 July 2009
Committee on Laws and Law Enforcement. "The President's Conference on Fire Prevention." 6 May 1947. Department of Homeland Security. 18 July 2009
Geren, G.L. "The Code Corner." November 2004. Specsandcodes.com. 18 July 2009
Grosshandler, W., et al. "Report of the Technical Investigation of The Station Nightclub Fire." June 2005. National Institute of Safety and Technology. 18 July 2009
Madigan, E. "Nightclub Fire Prompts New Fireworks Laws." July 2003. stateline.org. 18 July 2009
Newman, M.E. "Final NIST Rhode Island Nightclub Fire Report..." 25 June 2005. National Institute…[continue]
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