Thesis: Impact of Nightclub Fires on the Fire Service

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¶ … Nightclub Fires on the Fire Service

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Natchez, Mississippi, April 24, 1940. The Rhythm Nightclub fire lasted just 15 minutes. In that quarter of an hour, 212 African-Americans had been burned alive, trampled or had suffocated from smoke inhalation. There was only one exit and it swung inward. All the windows were boarded up.

When firemen found them, most of the bodies were in a mangled, twisted "heap" against the rear wall where they had rushed when they couldn't get out the front exit. Scores of others were injured. The blaze had started in some dry overhanging Spanish moss near that front entrance, and had "flashed" along the moss for the entire 200-foot length of the hall, sending the crowd into a stampeding panic (Beitler).

Boston, Massachusetts, November 28, 1942. 492 people died in a fire at the Cocoanut Grove Nightclub. Some of its doors and windows were bricked up or bolted shut. People pushed against both sides of a revolving door, the only exit, cutting off escape for everyone.

A pile of bodies was located at the bottom of some steps leading to another exit. That exit door was bolted shut. It all happened so quickly that some diners were asphyxiated and died from smoke and toxic gases while still in their chairs at the table.

It is believed the fire started when a busboy lit a match to see while replacing a lightbulb in the basement and ignited paper decorations covering the walls (Celebrateboston.com).

This fire is the second deadliest in U.S. history.

Warwick, Rhode Island, February 20, 2003. At the Station Nightclub, the tour manager for the Great White, the headliner band, set off fireworks indoors that ignited the soundproofing foam surrounding the back of the stage. 100 people were killed and 200 injured. There was no fire sprinkler system. Though there were three other exits, the panicked crowd created a "people jam" at the main entrance which prevented many people from escaping (CNN).

Fire officials would later say that EXIT signs for the other exit doors were probably not visible since the smoke was so thick. Great White did not have the proper permit to use pyrotechnics. The club was not over capacity at the time. The Station Nightclub had a fire inspection two months earlier with only minor writeups that were corrected.

The number of nightclub, disco, and restaurant fires over the past 40 years is staggering seven major fires, 435 people killed, and scores injured -- and that is just in the U.S. There have been two fire catastrophes at clubs in the U.S. just since 2003. The point is that this is not just a matter of the fires occuring early in our history when we were using horses, and handing buckets down a line to put fires out.

And let's keep in mind for purposes of this paper that we are just discussing nightclub fires.

If we look at the big picture of fires in public buildings in the U.S., the level of the problem stretches our imagination -- 15 major hotel fires, four hospital fires, and eight significant warehouse fires since 2004, several of these fires caused loss of life. But, back to our subject.

Fire Codes and Arson Laws

In 1947, after a number of devastating fires including the Rhythm and Cocoanut Grove Nightclub fires, President Truman called a President's Conference on Fire Safety and appointed a committee to look into what could be done to stop buildings from being consumed and people killed. At that time there were over 16,000 municipalities in the United States, and less than 2,000 of them had building codes. In the field of fire codes and laws, most state governments had limited themselves to authorizing the municipalities to create and enforce building codes, and, for the most part paid little attention to fire prevention (Committee on Laws and Law Enforcement 1).

It was not that there were not codes or standards developed by the 1940s, but they were often ignored. For the most part these codes were not being made into legally adopted laws and ordinances by cities, or states for that matter. And it was not that there were not well-designed and engineered plans for buildings. Most of the old building codes were outdated by anywhere from ten to 30 years, and the engineers, designers and architects of the day were perfectly capable of utilizing new designs and structures, stronger, more adapted to fire prevention, and safer all around. Again, the problem with the building codes, as it was with the fire codes, was that the laws and ordinances to put them into effect lagged way behind the technical knowledge of how to do it (Committee on Laws and Law Enforcement 3).

Many of the "codes" adopted by private organizations and industries to make them appear to be self-governing, were suspect. Often an industry would create a building code that would specify only materials that a particular company or their own industry could produce, thus ensuring them of the project and the profit. This did little or nothing to help design better or safer buildings. In addition, most cities at the time did not have the highly qualified technical people it would have taken to study these "fake" codes and ferret out the illegalities and self-

indulgence in them. The fact that they were written in very technical language, meant purposely to obfuscate and confuse anyone who read them, made the codes even more vicious and harmful.

The National Bureau of Standards, the American Standards Association, and the American Society for Testing Materials worked hard to eliminate these dangerous codes and to promote the development of safe, quality fire prevention methods. Once the building codes and fire standards were trustworthy and capable of doing what they were intended to do, there was still the matter of creating the laws and ordinances to enforce them and getting cities and states to adopt them

(Committee on Laws and Law Enforcement 3).

The problem with many municipalities came down to economics. These building codes and fire ordinances, for the most part, called for the renovation of existing buildings to meet the codes since so many of the codes were outdated by decades. The simple truth was that many small towns and cities could not afford to do that, so they didn't. However, due to many court battles and the continuing onslaught of fires, the judicial system ruled that economics could not take precedence over human life, and that the building and fire codes and laws were retroactively legal for new as well as existing buildings. Now the problem was standardization of the codes (Committee on Laws and Law Enforcement 6).

President Truman's commission discovered, as an example, that in the state of New York, 620 municipalities responded to the committee's surveys. Of the 620, only 175 cities had building codes at all. And of those, 140 of them had been written from ten to 40 years prior, and there was no standardization of any kind between them. In other words, most of the buildings being constructed in New York were not being erected or maintained with any control whatsoever (Committee on Laws and Law Enforcement 7). And these same statistics could be produced for almost any state in the Union.

The point of all this is that up to 1947, even after Rhythm, Cocoanut Grove and many other devastating and catastrophic fires, there were no standardized building or fire codes among the cities and states of the nation. Despite the heavy loss of life in these fires, things were pretty much status quo.

The President's Commission was the first step toward enforcing building codes and it led to the perhaps obvious conclusion that cities and states needed to be given the authority and discretion to adopt standards and ordinances regarding building and fire and pass them into law.

Code Changes After Rhythm and Cocoanut Grove Fires

In both of these early 1940's fires, the exits from the buildings were a significant cause of death and injury. The Rhythm nightclub had only one exit and the door opened inward. After the panic and rush of the crowd, bodies stacked up against it so it not only hindered people from getting out, but stopped firemen from entering the building because of the pile of bodies pushed up against it.

In the Cocoanut Grove fire, there were two revolving door exits. In the panic, people trying to get out pushed against both sides of the revolving doors causing them to be immovable in either direction. And, again, the accumulated pile of bodies on the inside obstructed firemen from entering the building.

The code change that resulted from this exit disaster ordered that hinged exit doors be outward opening and for those exit doors to be placed next to any revolving door exits. It also mandated extra battery-powered emergency exit lighting. The Rhythm… [END OF PREVIEW]

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