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The Station Nightclub Fire: Review

Abstract

A fire that occurred on the night of February 20, 2003, has been deemed the worst fire tragedy of the 2000s. The Station nightclub in West Warwick, Rhode Island, hosted a band, which used unapproved pyrotechnics during the performance. As a result, the pyrotechnics ignited the sound-proofing polyurethane lining the walls and ceiling of the club. Egress from the nightclub was slowed by crowds trying to escape through the main entrance. One hundred people died in the fire, and over fifty people were seriously injured and required hospitalization. The report evaluates the technical causes of the fire and its effects on live performances. The paper also provides recommendations regarding the structural requirements of nightclubs. Additionally, it examines the development of the regulatory framework and legal codes as a result of The Station nightclub fire.

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Introduction

The Station nightclub fire remains one of the deadliest incidents of the 2000s. On February 20, 2003, the Great White band was in attendance and preparing to start their performance, which usually included pyrotechnic devices (Madrzykowski et al., 2006). A few seconds before the show was set to begin, the pyrotechnics ignited polyurethane that lined the club’s walls and ceiling (Grosshandler et al., 2005). The fire spread quickly, with smoke being visible from the exit doors and flames breaking through the roof in mere minutes (Madrzykowski et al., 2006). As a result, one hundred people lost their lives, and many more were injured (Grosshandler et al., 2005). On February 27, 2003, an investigatory team of National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) engineers was deployed identify the technical causes of the fire, collect the necessary data from the local government, and evaluate the legal framework regarding the structural building of nightclubs (Grosshandler et al., 2005). The report on the incident, produced by NIST, will serve as the primary source for the paper. Additionally, the paper is going to analyze the changes that had occurred in the legal codes relative to the fire incidents in clubs.

Background Information: Description of the Building

In order to establish the causes of the fire and move further with the analysis of possible recommendations and subsequent legal changes, background information on the operations of The Station club has to be assessed. Since the club changed its ownership multiple times, it had undergone multiple remodels and renovations (Grosshandler et al., 2005). The main part of the nightclub was originally built in 1946 as a single-story wooden structure, which accelerated the rate of the fire spread (Grosshandler et al., 2005). The main entrance of the club was located on the northern side of the building, with many of the other emergency exits masked as the secret entry for VIP guests and performers (Harrington et al., 2005). The third door was located on the eastern side of the building, and the fourth one was fitted in the kitchen area (Harrington et al., 2005). There was no fire-resistant barrier between the layer polyurethane and the club’s interior (Grosshandler et al., 2005). As a result, the fire quickly caught the wooden frames and consumed the nightclub’s ceiling and dance floor. According to Grosshandler et al. from the NIST, “the wood paneling in the nightclub was estimated to contain over 95 percent of the fuel load” (2005, p. 18). Therefore, the absence of a fire-resistant barrier led to the fire, while the wooden structure of the building aggravated the consumption.

Fire Protection Systems

It would be logical to assume that a public venue that could hold up to four hundred people had fire sprinklers installed. However, the 2003 editions of the fire codes did not require a structure such as The Station nightclub to install sprinklers (Grosshandler et al., 2005). Various experiments conducted by the NIST team demonstrated the effectiveness of automatic fire sprinklers (Grosshandler et al., 2005). Computer simulations also showed that sprinklers would be able to control the fire initiated by the ignition of polyurethane in the club (Madrzykowski et al., 2006). A heat detection system at The Station nightclub was ineffective since the alarm went off forty-one seconds after the ignition, by which time people had already started moving towards the exits (Grosshandler et al., 2005). It is important to acknowledge that after the incident, fire codes underwent significant changes in order to minimize the risk of something similar to The Station nightclub fire happening elsewhere.

Timeline of the Incident

It was crucial for the NIST to establish the timeline of the incidents in order to move forward with the investigation and propose recommendations. At 11:08 pm, first flames appeared on the upper wall, left of the stage (Grosshandler et al., 2005). According to Grosshandler et al., thirty seconds after the ignition, the band stopped playing, and people started to evacuate (2005). At 11:09 pm, three emergency calls to the 911 were reported (Grosshandler et al., 2005). Fire department rushed to the scene at 11:13 pm, and the media received its first response from the Fire Department chief at 11:22 pm (Grosshandler et al., 2005). The report concludes that the rescue mission ended at 1:06 am after all the casualties were transferred to local hospitals (Grosshandler et al., 2005). Even though the club patrons noticed the ignition seconds after it happened, the absence of emergency exit windows and automatic sprinklers disrupted the process of swift evacuation.

Changes in Structural Requirements after the Fire

The magnitude of The Station nightclub fire required government official and non-governmental agencies to produce a swift response. As a result, various legal institutions generated temporary and permanent guidelines regarding the fire emergency measures required for entertainment venues (Harrington et al., 2005). The National Fire Protection Association created a set of regulatory amendments to address the safety concerns raised by the public (Harrington et al., 2005). The amendments included sections dealing with the installation of sprinklers, occupancy levels, and emergency means of egress. Based on various recommendations provided by the NIST engineers, certain fire code changes had been implemented.

Recommendations Proposed by the NIST Taskforce

The NIST team of engineers held an investigation, which resulted in a set of recommendations regarding the club’s model building and the improvement of fire codes. According to the report, authorities had to strengthen the requirements for the installation of fire sprinklers and increase “the factor of safety on the time for occupants to egress” (Grosshandler et al., 2005, p. 3). The NIST advised the local authorities to implement new model codes that would require all the nightclubs to install automatic sprinkler systems, regardless of the venue’s size or visitor capacity (Grosshandler et al., 2005). The report further limited the use of pyrotechnics in the places of public assembly and proposed to tighten “the restriction on the use of flexible polyurethane foam” (Grosshandler et al., 2005, p. 3). It also provided guidance to fire safety inspectors by recommending them to keep records of building permits and means of egress (Grosshandler et al., 2005). Furthermore, the NIST taskforce acknowledged that there was a strong need for additional research that would help to underpin the changes recommended by the investigatory team.

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Comprehensive Fire Safety Act of 2003

Following the recommendations provided in the NIST report, a new set of legal regulations needed to be addressed. The Comprehensive Fire Safety Act of 2003 established the primary fire emergency precautions (Harrington et al., 2005). It eliminated the umbrella clause by requiring all entertainment venues to use up-to-date fire codes. The Act regulated the use of pyrotechnics in nightclubs and mandated the use of appropriate heat detectors and sprinklers (Harrington et al., 2005). Additionally, the Comprehensive Act gave fire marshals legal powers to make inspections during the nightclubs’ operating hours (Harrington et al., 2005). It also established a concise planning framework that would identify the authorities’ weaknesses in their approach to fire safety regulation.

Conclusion

The Station nightclub fire resulted in many deaths and led to numerous policy changes regarding fire safety in crowded entertainment venues. The technical causes of the pyrotechnic ignition, including the lack of fire-resistant barrier on the walls and ceiling, as well as the absence of automatic sprinklers, could have been averted. The investigation conducted by the NIST taskforce resulted in a set of practical recommendations to nightclub owners, legal authorities, and fire departments. The Station nightclub fire served as a tragic example of the owners’ negligence and the authorities’ inability to predict the possibility of such an incident happening.

References

Grosshandler, W.L., Bryner, N., and Madrzykowski, D. (2005). Report of the technical investigation of The Station nightclub fire. National Institute of Standards and Technology. Web.

Harrington, D. T., Biffl, W. L., & Cioffi, W. G. (2005). The Station nightclub fire. Journal of Burn Care & Research, 26(2), 141-143,

Madrzykowski, D., Bryner, N., & Kerber, S. I. (2006). The NIST Station nightclub fire investigation: Physical simulation of the fire. Fire Protection Engineering. Web.

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