Once again, it is the time of year when goblins are out in force, kids scream from fright and entrepreneurs are putting in overtime to lure the cast of characters to their makeshift or well thought out haunted house.
Calls for service at these events can be challenging because of the nature of the facility layout and amount of occupants. The actions of the fire prevention division prior to the event must positively impact the fire department's ability to provide fire and EMS services to the patrons of these establishments. Which type of these haunted places do you find in your jurisdiction? Do you even know they exist? Does your department's fire prevention and fire suppression divisions work together when these occupancies are being constructed?
We have all been in a fright house at one time or another. Some are really great and sadly enough, the ones that are the scariest are generally the most hazardous, unless they have been well thought out and someone dumped lots of money into the setup to ensure they are safe. Conscientious folks who care about safety and want well-behaving crowds generally set up the haunted houses that are routinely good moneymakers. Many of these events are hosted by volunteers raising money for a worthy community charity.
The ones that scare us are the makeshift, last minute toss-it-together and open the door (not doors!) varieties. These are the ones that are dark, covered with sheets and cobwebs, lots of messy combustible props, poor egress, lack automatic sprinklers and lack fire department involvement during the planning of the event. These are the ones we must be very cautious of and work very hard at the last minute to either work with or abate. These can have a great impact on the fire department's time and resources.
Ok, now that you are scared, what are some major considerations we should look at? First, most all of the nationally recognized fire codes provide guidance on how a haunted house should be constructed and operated, but unfortunately most of it is non-specific and not found under an occupancy classification of haunted house. You will find the requirements in the special amusement occupancy classification.
Depending on how your bureau is set up, you may want to require a permit. The permit would drive an inspection and potentially a construction review prior to the building of the "temporary" occupancy. When possible, require construction documentation prior to work beginning. Use this as a tool to meet the organization involved in the event and educate them on the fire and life safety requirements early in the design of their occupancy.
It is generally helpful to have a process available where the event organizers or operators can bring in the necessary materials and documentation, have a meeting to discuss the plan, leave the information for review and then submit a permit application. This application is followed by an inspection after the plans and documentation is approved. Unfortunately inspections can become stacked up because of the last minute requests. It is to everyone's benefit that you try and accommodate these inspections as best you can in order to make sure facilities are run safe and the owners/operators have time to mitigate their violations. Remember, if it's tough for us to identify all the requirements, think the how folks feel that don't even know a fire code exists.
The construction document review is not necessarily just to look at the layout, the construction and decoration materials used but the administrative controls and the fire safety and evacuation plan. Both of these play a critical role in fire department operations when emergency personnel are called to their location for service.
A short list of items to question during a haunted house construction document plan review is listed below: