Final U.S. Report on R.I. Nightclub Fire Urges Sprinklers, National Fire Code

July 1, 2005

The U.S. Commerce Department’s National Institute of Standards and Technology today urged all state and local governments to adopt and aggressively enforce national model building and fire safety codes for nightclubs.

Additionally, NIST called for changes to further strengthen the model codes based on the findings from the agency’s investigation of the Feb. 20, 2003, fire at The Station nightclub in W. Warwick, R.I.

The report recommends that sprinkler systems be installed in all new nightclubs and in existing clubs with a capacity of more than 100 people. A March draft version had been tougher, recommending the installation of sprinkler systems in all nightclubs, regardless of size.

The NIST investigation concluded that “strict adherence to the 2003 model codes available at the time of the fire would go a long way to preventing similar tragedies in the future. Changes to the codes subsequent to the fire made them stronger. By making some additional changes – and state and local agencies adopting and enforcing them – we can strengthen occupant safety even further.”

“Based on our investigation findings and the comments received on our draft report, we are today making 10 recommendations in our final report for increased occupant safety in nightclubs that reinforce the current model codes and proposing additional changes that will make them even more effective,” said Lead Investigator William Grosshandler.

Seven of the 10 NIST recommendations support and add to the actions already taken by the state of Rhode Island and national model code development organizations since The Station nightclub fire. The remaining three NIST recommendations call for more research on human behavior in emergencies, fire spread and suppression, and computer-aided decision tools – the data from which could yield further improvements in and maximize the effectiveness of these lifesaving regulations.

The first recommendation urges all state and local jurisdictions to:

* adopt a building and fire code covering nightclubs based on one of the national model codes – as a minimum requirement – and update local codes as the national standards are revised;
* implement aggressive and effective fire inspection and enforcement programs that address all aspects of these codes; and
* ensure that enough fire inspectors and building plan examiners – professionally qualified to a national standard – are on staff to carry out this work.

“It is important to note that state or local building regulations – rather than model codes – govern building design, construction and operation,” according to the NIST report.

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. NIST recommends that the current – and recently strengthened – National Fire Protection Association (NFPA) Standard for the Installation of Sprinkler Systems (NFPA 13) be adopted, implemented and enforced for all new nightclubs regardless of size, and for existing nightclubs with an occupancy limit greater than 100 people. Materials that ignite easily and propagate flames rapidly such as non-fire retarded flexible polyurethane foam should be clearly identifiable and be specifically forbidden as a finish material for all new and existing nightclubs, according to the NIST report.

Recommendation 4 calls for the NFPA 1126 standard on the use of pyrotechnics before an audience to be strengthened by addressing the need for automatic sprinkler systems; minimum occupancy/building size levels; the posting of pyrotechnic use plans and emergency procedures; and setting new minimum clearances between pyrotechnics and the items they potentially could ignite.

Recommendation 5 calls for changes in national model codes that increase the factor of safety for determining occupancy limits in all new and existing nightclubs. These include setting a maximum permitted evacuation time (90 seconds for nightclubs similar in size to or smaller than The Station), calculating the number of required exits and permitted occupancies (assuming that at least one exit will be inaccessible during an emergency), increasing staff training and evacuation planning, and improving means for occupants to locate emergency routes when standard exit signs are obscured by smoke.

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. NIST urges studies be conducted to:

* better understand human behavior in emergency situations and to predict the impact of building design on safe egress in emergencies;
* better understand fire spread and suppression; and
* develop and refine computer models and computer-aided decision tools that communities can use to make cost-effective choices about code changes, fire safety technologies and emergency resource allocations.

The Station nightclub fire investigation, begun on Feb. 27, 2003, was conducted under the National Construction Safety Team (NCST) Act. The act gives NIST the responsibility for conducting technical investigations of building-related failures that result in substantial loss of life. NIST has no regulatory authority under the NCST Act.

For the investigation, Grosshandler teamed with NIST researchers Nelson Bryner and Daniel Madrzykowski, and fire studies specialist Kenneth Kuntz of the Department of Homeland Security’s U.S. Fire Administration.

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