Night Club Occupancies

Parents Plea For Fire Sprinkler Reform:
Letter to Alderman Edward Burke
Testimony Statement of Raymond Mattera
Dianne Mattera Letter
Alderman Stone & Ray Mattera photo at the City Building Code Committee

NIFSAB Bulletin

An assembly occupancy is generally defined as “an occupancy (1) used for a gathering of 50 or more persons for deliberation, worship, entertainment, eating, drinking, amusement, awaiting transportation, or similar uses; or (2) used as a special amusement building, regardless of occupant load.” Assembly occupancies might include the following: Armories, assembly halls, auditoriums, club rooms, dance halls, drinking establishments and exhibition halls among others.

The Need for Fire Sprinklers in Nightclubs

On February 17, 2003, the combustible ceiling of the Fine Line Music Cafe in Minneapolis, Minnesota, was ignited by a rock band’s pyrotechnic display. The club’s automatic sprinkler system activated to control the fire. There were no lives lost, no injuries. Most of us would have never even heard about that fire if it weren’t for the comparisons that have been made between it and a fire that took place later the same week in a nightclub without sprinklers. On the night of February 20, 2003, a fire was ignited by a rock band’s pyrotechnics at the Station in West Warwick, Rhode Island. The fire was fueled by exposed combustible foam that had been applied to the stage for soundproofing, and led to 100 deaths.

The morning after the Station fire, a member company of the National Fire Sprinkler Association conducted a test, igniting similar exposed combustible foam applied to the back and ceiling of a small stage. With no sprinkler present, the fire quickly grew to fully involve the foam. With a single sprinkler present, the fire was stopped in its tracks. It was not an attempt to duplicate the conditions at the Rhode Island fire, but a demonstration of the difference sprinkler protection can make in an otherwise overwhelming fire involving exposed combustible foam. Temperature comparisons with and without sprinklers showed the tremendous cooling ability of a properly functioning sprinkler system, stopping the fast-developing fire, and preventing room flashover.

Modern building codes do not permit exposed combustible foam even with sprinkler protection, and no one is suggesting they should. But the fact is that properly designed, installed and maintained sprinkler systems can make up for a wide range of other fire protection deficiencies. It is for that reason that the NFPA 101 Life Safety Code has, since the 1981 edition, required sprinkler protection for all new public assembly buildings with an occupancy exceeding 300.

There will be those who suggest that no new lessons were learned in the Rhode Island fire. However, one important lesson is that a very fast-developing fire may not allow occupants sufficient time to recognize and plan their escape through secondary exits. Another important lesson is that these occupancies present an environment that is difficult to control due to a number of factors:

  • Occupant unfamiliarity with exits
  • Potential overcrowding
  • Consumption of alcohol
  • Poor lighting
  • Potential compromising of exits due to concern for collection of entertainment charges
  • Unusual ignition sources, including pyrotechnics
  • Likelihood of temporary decorations or other unregulated combustibles

There is good and sufficient reason to require that all night clubs, dance halls, cabarets and discothèques, regardless of size, be protected throughout by an approved, supervised automatic sprinkler system.

The Station fire is only the most recent in a long series of tragic fires in non-sprinklered assembly occupancies. This includes the loss of 164 lives in the Beverly Hills Supper Club fire of 1977, and the Happy Land Social Club fire in New York City that killed 87 people in 1990. The potential for similar tragedy continues in all non-sprinklered clubs. Within the past several years alone the following fires have taken place in nightclub type occupancies:

  • December 2002 – A fire quickly spread through the La Goajira night club in Carascas, Venezuela, killing 47 of more than 500 people crowded into the non-sprinklered facility.
  • July 2002 – A fire that originated with a bartender stunt killed 25 and injured 40 in a disco within a shopping mall in Lima, Peru. The club, which held about 1,000, had no fire sprinkler system.
  • August 2001 – A pre-dawn fire in a hotel discothèque killed 73 people and injured another 50 in a suburb of Manila in the Philippines. The facility had no sprinklers, its fire alarm system wasn’t working, and emergency fire exits were found locked or obstructed. The fire was the reported as the worst in the Philippines since the March 1966 discothèque fire that killed 160 people, mostly teenagers.
  • December 2000 – Eleven young people died in a New Year’s Eve party at the Het Hemeltje (Small Heaven) café in Volendam, Holland. Sparks from a sparkler ignited overhead Christmas decorations. The fast-spreading fire, in combination with the loss of lighting and a locked exit door, led to the deaths. There were no sprinklers.
  • December 2000 – A fire that began elsewhere in a non-sprinklered shopping plaza spread to a disco/dance hall and killed 309 people in Luoyang, China.
  • October 2000 – A fire originating in a disco at the Saigon International Trade Center in Ho Minh City, Vietnam, left 61 dead, most attending a wedding reception within the same non-sprinklered building.
  • October 1998 – A fire at a dance hall in Gothenburg, Sweden killed 63 people and injured another 180.  In addition to a lack of automatic sprinkler protection, the hall was overcrowded, lacked a fire alarm system, and had combustibles stored in an exit stairwell.

The Rhode Island fire adds to this list. The common theme in all of these fire tragedies is the lack of automatic fire sprinkler protection. Properly designed, installed and maintained fire sprinkler systems in night clubs, cabarets, discothèques, and dance halls can make up for a wide variety of other fire protection deficiencies, and prevent the fast-developing fires that trap and kill dozens of unsuspecting patrons, typically young adults.

The same technical justification that has proven sprinklers a necessity for the larger assembly occupancies also justifies sprinklers in the smaller nightclubs in which the special factors mentioned above combine to create the potential for disaster. Although it can be argued that fire safety can be provided in other ways, experience continues to demonstrate that this is not happening. The additional safety proved by automatic sprinkler protection should be mandated.

Established in 1905, the National Fire Sprinkler Association is a trade association comprised of installers and manufacturers of fire sprinklers and related equipment and services. Professional and Subscriber memberships are also available. NFSA provides publications, seminars, representation in codes and standards-making, market development, labor relations, and other services to its membership. Headquartered in Patterson, New York, NFSA has regional offices throughout the country.

Additional Information:
Nightclub Sprinkler Threshold