Old Lessons Continue To Go Unheeded

"There are no new lessons to be learned from this fire; only old lessons that tragically went unheeded."

I first heard those sad words 48 years ago when I was interviewing Percy Bugbee, who was then president of the National Fire Protection Association (NFPA). I was a reporter on a Chicago newspaper, writing a story about a fire that had claimed many lives and, as the years went on, they were repeated many times in the aftermath of other tragic fires. Almost a half-century later, a series of disasters this past winter reminded me of Percy's words and sharply demonstrated that old lessons continue to go unheeded.

There was a stampede that killed 21 people in a Chicago nightclub, followed by the nightclub fire that took almost 100 lives in West Warwick, RI; then a nursing home fire with 10 dead in Hartford, CT. While there were some unique and bizarre circumstances in both club incidents, it was the same old story - overcrowding, locked or blocked exits in the nightclubs and no sprinklers in the nursing home and nightclub that burned.

In Chicago, panic was caused by a security guard using a chemical spray to break up a fight. As in previous nightclub disasters, everyone tried to get out the same way they came in and bodies piled up in a stairwell. But even if they had tried to reach other exits, it wouldn't have helped because firefighters arriving on the scene found that the doors were locked and inoperable. As this is written, the investigation is still underway, but it drives home the old lesson that there is no way of knowing what type of harebrained, life-threatening behavior will take place inside a building - which is why life safety has to be engineered into every place of public assembly.

Along with exits that open and are easily accessible, these buildings must have sprinklers. The fire at The Station club in West Warwick is the latest in a long history of fatal nightclub fires that could have been prevented if the buildings had been required to have sprinklers. But the code - which followed NFPA standards - mandated sprinklers only if the legal occupancy was more than 300 people. According to news reports, there were more than 300 people in the club when a rock band set off a pyrotechnic display, which ignited the ceiling and flammable soundproofing foam. The result was an instant flashover and the entire building was fully involved when first-alarm companies arrived on the scene. The victims never had a chance.

When it comes to harebrained stunts, it's hard to think of anything more dangerous than pyrotechnics inside a crowded room. It should never be allowed under any circumstances. This band was known for its pyrotechnic displays and claims they had permission from the club owners to do it, which one of the owners denies. Either way, the old lesson is clear: regardless of its size or number of occupants, every nightclub should be required to have sprinklers. Even with the pyrotechnics, flammable soundproofing and overcrowding, fire officials agree that no lives would have been lost if The Station had been protected by sprinklers.

Only a few days earlier, in Minneapolis, another rock band illegally used pyrotechnics inside the Fine Line Music Cafe and set the ceiling on fire. But it was quickly extinguished by sprinklers while 120 patrons escaped without injury via three exits. They were guided by the club's staff, which had practiced their evacuation plan after hearing of the Chicago incident. The sprinklers did exactly what they're supposed to do and a disaster was averted.

That was not the case a week later in hartford, where 10 patients died and 19 were injured when fire destroyed one wing of a nursing home. Sprinklers were not required because it was a one-story facility. In theory, it should be easier to escape from the ground floor; in actual practice, heavy smoke and intense heat make it extremely difficult to evacuate bedridden patients. Like the nightclubs, nursing home have a long and horrifying history of fatal fires; all should be required to have sprinklers regardless of their size or number of floors.

There was one other incident that caught our attention last month. In Washington, DC, an arson fire in the basement of a high school, during school hours, injured one firefighter and caused the building to be evacuated. First-arriving companies found eight (!) exit doors chained shut from the inside, despite repeated warnings to school administrators that this is all-too-common practice had to stop. It's done for security reasons to keep bad people out, but the potential for loss of life in a school is so great and so obvious that you have to wonder if some school officials are as harebrained as a rock band.

For the past 17 months, the fire service has been focused on its response to acts of terrorism. That's a legitimate priority, but maybe it's time to go back to some of the basics - like cracking down on school officials and nightclub owners who lock exit doors, closing the loopholes in weak codes, and sending fire companies out on the street to constantly inspect schools, nightclubs and other high-risk buildings. These are tough times for most fire departments, with more responsibilities, less money and fewer people to do the job. But whenever the old lessons are forgotten or ignored, they always come back to haunt us.

Hal Bruno, a Firehouse® contributing editor, retired as political director for ABC News in Washington and served almost 40 years as a volunteer firefighter. He is a director of the Chevy Chase, MD, Fire Department and chairman of the National Fallen Firefighters Foundation.