Fire Foresight: Tragedy Equals Lessons Learned

It took just minutes for the 2003 nightmare at The Station nightclub in West Warwick, R.I., to reach its climax. The blaze was Rhode Island's most devastating fire in decades and the fourth-deadliest nightclub fire in U.S. history.

Even after the smoke cleared, emergency medical teams and ambulance sirens kept wailing throughout that February night. In the end, 100 perished, while 200 others suffered fire-related injuries, some catastrophic.

Averting commercial fires and the pain and suffering they bring is really the responsibility of everyone connected to a building's existence including electrical contractors. Therefore, electrical contractors will want to ensure their crews are kept abreast of all pertinent codes that apply to their installations.

While those crews are hitting the books, management may wish to ponder: when it comes to “places of special assembly,” e.g., the amusement and entertainment venues, how much protection is really enough?

Plan for worst-case scenarios

Most local codes in most jurisdictions are minimal codes. Therefore, proactive contractors, who think ahead and envision worst-case scenarios, could ultimately save lives while expanding legitimate business opportunities in the present.

The vast majority of tragic disasters are those with multiple causes against a backdrop of unusual circumstances. The Station nightclub fire was not any different. NECA board member Tom Smith of Cox Systems Technology, Oklahoma City, challenged the notion that fire sprinklers would have made much difference in the case of the Rhode Island club (where none were in place).

Smith pointed out that many sprinklers are set to shut off at ambient temperatures of 195 F degrees. So, said Smith, even if The Station had a sprinkler head along every foot of the ceiling, it may not have helped since the heat of that rapidly spreading fire was so extreme.

An alternate viewpoint was expressed by Fire Marshal Steven Sapp of the Columbia, Mo., Fire Department (see sidebar on page 25). Sapp said that most sprinkler heads have adjustable features allowing functionality at temperatures above 200 F degrees. However, Smith said that it is basically a moot point since humans cannot actually breathe at these high temperatures.

At the same time, there is little debate that a more powerful, comprehensive fire alarm could have helped on that night. Jeff Hendrickson, marketing director for Silent Knight, Maple Grove, Minn., is well aware of Rhode Island's Comprehensive Fire Safety Act of 2003. He said the provision to merge entertainment light and sound systems with on-premises fire alarms is a sensible precaution and not difficult to achieve.

Hendrickson said there merely needs to be addressable control modules and connectivity between the power feed and a low-voltage relay switch. A product such as Silent Knight's 5808 System would be fully compatible with this type of electronic set up.

Disaster background

Would any or all of these electronics have made a difference in The Station disaster? The band Great White played that night. Their popular act included special pyrotechnic effects they had performed before without incident. But on that night-Feb. 20-many things went wrong.

Friday night revelers out for fun met a cruel fate instead, making news headlines from coast to coast. How did it happen? What steps did local authorities take to ensure that such a event would not occur again? And what can electrical contractors and their clients learn from the incident and its aftermath?

The sad fact is that it was probably avoidable. Though no electrical contractors were ever implicated in this case, The Station fire involved prolonged and persistent carelessness, on the part of the club owners, their facility vendors and Great White. Unfortunately, these lapses in human judgment were abetted by local codes and enforcement that turned out to be lax at best.

Government steps in

Prior to The Station fire disaster, the state had seen fewer than 90 fire-related deaths in the previous eight years combined. But afterward, state officials and the citizens of Rhode Island had to face the reality of 100 lives lost all at once.

To address a huge public outcry and do right by its residents, state legislators formed The Special Legislative Commission To Study All Aspects Of Law And Regulation Concerning Pyrotechnic Displays and Fire Safety.

On June 5, 2003, just three and a half months after the disaster, the commission issued its findings, recommendations, and plans of action in a 53-page document.

The commission report, entitled “Making Rhode Island the Safest State,” covered a range of interconnected topics, including building and fire codes, inspections, compliance, crowd management, and sprinkler and fire alarm systems. The report made five broad recommendations that can be summed up, in order, as follows: local fire safety and building codes reform/enhancement; pyrotechnic entertainment prohibitions; requirements for fire prevention and suppression systems/technology; granting increased powers of investigation and enforcement to fire marshals and their staffs; and comprehensive, coordinated and ongoing planning for future improvements in the administration of fire safety throughout the state.

With surprising swiftness, the report became the law of the land the following month. Passed on July 7, 2003, the measure is known as Rhode Island's Comprehensive Fire Safety Act of 2003. Among many mandated changes were several that directly affect the work of electrical contractors.

One specific stipulation (Chapter 106/Sect. 23-28.6.22) of the act requires fire and/or smoke alarms to be integrated with entertainment electronics in use for an event at Class C places of assembly (those that permit up to 300 patrons, maximum capacity).

This means that concert bands must have their music/sound systems interfacing with alarm systems so loud music and visual distractions, such as a light show, can be instantaneously “frozen” upon the actuation of a heat or smoke detecting alarm.

The idea is that partying patrons whose visual and acoustic senses are being “jammed” need to be able to hear alarms, alerts and annunciators in order to respond to them. Another provision of the act is that “a manual alarm station shall be installed on every stage and near any fixed lighting control panel and any projection booth.”

Perhaps most significant is the act's insistence that places of assembly already required by law to have alarms installed on premises actually have to have them installed, perhaps a tacit admission that before Feb. 20, 2003, there was weak or spotty enforcement of life-saving provisions on the books.

Of course it was not only public officials in Rhode Island who responded to this tragedy. The National Fire Protection Association (NFPA) also passed amendments to strengthen NFPA safety codes: NFPA 101, Life Safety Code, and NFPA 5000, Building Construction and Safety Code.

The Station fire tragedy served notice that when catastrophic events take place, public officials and the public(s) they serve grapple together to explore how and why the event happened.

Over time, angry finger-pointing gives way to more rational analysis. As this stage is reached and new technological solutions are devised, electrical contractors can emerge as heroes with the hardware and the smarts to protect precious human lives. EC

MOORE, a licensed fire protection engineer, frequent speaker and an expert in the life safety field, is a co-editor of the current National Fire Alarm Code Handbook. Moore is a principal with Hughes Associates Inc. at the Warwick, R.I., office.


About the Author

Wayne D. Moore

Fire/Life Safety Columnist
Wayne D. Moore, a licensed fire protection engineer, frequent speaker and an expert in the life safety field, is a principal member and past chair of NFPA 72, Chapter 24. Moore is a vice president with JENSEN HUGHES at the Warwick, R.I., office. He c...

Stay Informed Join our Newsletter

Having trouble finding time to sit down with the latest issue of
ELECTRICAL CONTRACTOR? Don't worry, we'll come to you.