Fire & Life Safety Measures for Haunted Houses

Oct. 29, 2008
Calls for service at these events can be challenging because of the nature of the facility layout and amount of occupants.

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:

  1. How many square feet it the occupancy?
  2. Does the fire code require this to take place in a building protected by automatic sprinklers?
  3. Is the building sprinklered?
  4. What type of props and special effects will be used?
  5. What is the calculated occupant load including workers and patrons?
  6. Are the workers clear on the evacuation procedures and how are they trained and prepared?
  7. Combustibility or flammability of corridor linings, props and costumes?
  8. What is the flow of patrons?
  9. Are there logjams or pinch points and how are they addressed? Are there emergency entrances?
  10. Are there staging locations and how many people will they hold?
  11. Where are they getting electricity and are there appropriate disconnects and procedures?
  12. Can lights be turned on easily and will that location be constantly staffed?
  13. Will there be smoke alarms or detectors and how are they to be tested before the event?
  14. Will anything in the event hamper smoke detector or alarm activation?
  15. Will there need to be a fire watch?
  16. What type of emergency lighting and exit lighting will there be?
  17. Are the appropriate extinguishers present and is staff trained in their use?
  18. Are the fire lanes acceptable and are they free and unobstructed?

Most of the good events will have considered all of this and can readily respond to the questions if asked because most likely this is not their first event like this. You may have gone over all of this in the years past. The event operators that have just thrown this together at the last minute, in hopes to make a quick profit for their organization, will scare you more than their haunted house!

Concern should be increased if alcohol is present in or near the facility. Requesting the facility to provide on-site security is also a good idea. They can be used for fire watch if properly trained, be available for rowdy patrons and help evacuate and call for help in the event of an emergency. Medical incidents are also not uncommon here as well. The event needs to be evaluated thoroughly from an operations standpoint as well.

Inspectors should be very sensitive to the needs of the facility but nonetheless stern in their application of the code. These facilities are no place to make a mistake. A list of items inspectors should consider in addition to the plan review are listed below:

  1. How distinct is the fire alarm signal if one is required?
  2. Can the occupants identify the fire alarm signal from the sounds of the event?
  3. Is the building address clearly identified and easy to find?
  4. Will large crowds gather in a location to hinder fire and EMS access?
  5. How many staff will be present and what will their positions be?
  6. Is there a minimum of two exits and are travel distances met?
  7. Is panic hardware required and installed? Are all locking and latching correct?
  8. If required, are sprinklers installed and did you check the valves to be open?
  9. Are sprinklers free of obstructions?
  10. Are "No Smoking" signs provided?
  11. How are extension cords? Be cautious of knock-off brands as they typically have much less load carrying capability. Utilize the expertise of your local electrical inspector. There may be the need for additional outlets in the building.
  12. Are flame-spread ratings of corridors and rooms appropriate?
  13. Is the nearest fire station aware of the location and occupancy?
  14. Is there a pre-fire plan in place?
  15. What are the hours of the event?

Again, these are but a few of the items you may want to consider in the course of managing your local haunted houses. Personally, we had fun in them when we were kids and still do. We just want everyone to have the same experience. We can't think of anything worse than a haunted house with a fire fatality that could easily have been prevented.

In order to keep you sane this holiday season, please prepare for what you know will be out there and plan accordingly. If you consider even the short list we provided, you will be in pretty good shape.

BRETT LACEY, a Contributing Editor, is the Fire Marshal for the Colorado Springs, CO, Fire Department and a professional engineer. He has over 27 years in the fire service and has served on various technical committees including NFPA 1031, IFSTA committee for Inspection practices, and Fire Detection and Suppression Systems and the Colorado Fire Marshal's Association Code Committee. PAUL VALENTINE, a Contributing Editor, is the Fire Marshal for the Mount Prospect, IL, Fire Department and formerly served as their fire protection engineer. He has a Bachelor of Science Degree in Fire Protection and Safety Engineering Technology from Oklahoma State University and a Master of Science Degree in Management and Organizational Behavior from Benedictine University and is a graduate from the National Fire Academy's Executive Fire Officer Program. Brett and Paul co-authored Fire Prevention Applications, published by Fire Protection Publications. They also presented a webcast titled Fire Prevention Applications on Firehouse TrainingLIVE. To read their complete biographies and view their archived articles, click here. You can reach Paul by e-mail at: [email protected].

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