Fire Studies: Public Assembly Building Fires

Feb. 1, 2020
James P. Smith shares his knowledge of fires at public assembly buildings to provide crucial instruction and strategic considerations.

History has produced many deadly fires in public assembly buildings. Fortunately, lessons learned from past events permitted the creation and updating of life safety codes in an effort to address these deadly types of fires in the future. Despite this, fire officials who inspect buildings of public assembly must be attuned to numerous matters that, regrettably, come into play over and over again. 

The potential for loss of life in a public assembly fire is directly related to the number of people who are threatened. Success in fighting these fires depends on awareness of the special problems that are associated with public assembly buildings.

Construction and design

Construction and design of a building should consider the life safety of occupants, but often it doesn’t. For example, nightclubs and restaurants might be located on the top floors of high-rise buildings. This location can delay firefighters from arriving and attacking a fire in a timely manner. If delayed, they can’t assist in initial rescue or evacuation efforts.

A public assembly might consist of large, unbroken areas that allow a fire to spread quickly. On the other hand, a maze-like configuration can confuse people who are disoriented by smoke and trying to locate the door through which they entered the building.

Firefighters might find that building access/egress is limited because of building renovations, which can include false fronts and windowless design. Some buildings have converted from other occupancies—for example, a barn that was turned into a theater by a theatrical group. Firefighters who are unaware of this change in building occupancy could be confronted with a serious life hazard problem if they expect a routine barn fire.

A person who is unfamiliar with a building most likely won’t react according to a prescribed evacuation plan unless directed to do so by a person in authority. Under emergency conditions, this direction might not be given or the person might not understand the message. This leads to individuals reacting in a way that they believe will best safeguard themselves, possibly causing evacuation problems for firefighters.

A building’s heating, ventilation and air-conditioning (HVAC) system can spread fire and smoke. Knowledge and control of these systems by the fire department might assist firefighting operations if it’s deemed beneficial to utilize these systems to ventilate deadly smoke from the building. If this isn’t possible, these systems should be shut down immediately to prevent spread of fire and smoke.

Furnishings and finishes

Although an official can diligently inspect a building during construction for code compliance, furnishings that are added afterward can contribute to a fast-burning fire. A management concern is the aesthetic effect that’s created by furnishings; rarely is attention paid to the fire resistance of a material that’s selected for their occupancies.

Seasonal motifs, including Halloween, Easter and Christmas decorations, can pose a deadly threat. Live evergreen trees, although beautiful, dry out quickly. When ignited, they release a tremendous amount of heat. Loosely hanging banners or crepe paper can ignite easily.

Combustible interior finishes and furnishings can permit a fire to spread rapidly, often creating large amounts of deadly smoke. Decorative combustible furnishings will let fire spread at such a rate that the occupants might have little time to escape.

At the Beverly Hills Supper Club in Southgate, KY, in 1977, untreated, decorative materials contributed to the rapid spread of fire and the loss of life of 164 occupants.

The Cocoanut Grove fire in Boston was fed by flammable decorations.

The MGM Grand hotel and casino fire in Las Vegas in 1980 took 85 lives. The fire started in an unsprinklered restaurant/deli that wasn’t open for business at the time. The adjacent casino covered an area of 150 feet x 450 feet. It took only six minutes from the time of the discovery of the fire for the total casino area to become involved in fire. It was estimated that the fire travelled at a rate of 19 feet per second. (Consider your fire department’s average time for placing a 2½-inch hoseline into operation to attack a fire that’s spreading at this elevated rate, and it’s easy to realize how difficult, if not impossible, it would be to control this blaze.)


The number and placement of exit doors in public assemblies is based on the number of people that can be expected to reasonably occupy a building. However, public assemblies have the potential for overcrowding; this can be a common occurrence in popular nightclubs during special events.

During an emergency evacuation where overcrowding exists, exit doors can become congested with people, restricting egress. The inability to leave a building when confronted with a fire or smoky conditions can lead to panic.

Although buildings have maximum occupancy loads, those loads are difficult to enforce. When compliance is a constant problem, some fire officials have been forced to tell the building manager or owner during business that the establishment appears to be overcrowded and that everyone must leave the building. As patrons re-enter the structure, the fire official will count heads to ensure compliance. Although a stringent measure, this interruption of business often leads to future cooperation and compliance.

The Cocoanut Grove nightclub fire left 492 dead. It was estimated that there were more than 1,000 patrons in the club at the time of the fire, which had a legal occupancy capacity of 460 people.


Conference rooms in places of assembly might have only a single entrance and exit point, which hinders a rapid and orderly exit. (The older style of panic hardware on an exit door was a bar that was pushed toward the exit door, allowing the door to open. The newer style is secured flat against the door. This prevents a person’s arm from sliding into the open bar, preventing the door from opening.)

An adequate number of properly marked and unobstructed exits is a must. Tables, curtains, large planters and other decorative schemes might block exits. Unfortunately, no perception of danger is realized by management or by most occupants through these actions. The problem: the general apathy toward fires. Most people feel that fires happen to other people, or they say, “I’ve been in business for 25 years and have never had a fire.” This indifference is difficult to overcome.

A problem that I found when inspecting live events at stadiums that host sporting events or concerts is that some venues go to extreme measures to prevent illegal entry. Ticket takers were stationed at entry locations. Certain events attracted ticket holders who would attempt to open unguarded exit doors to allow their friends to enter. To prevent this from happening, unguarded exit doors often were chained and padlocked. Frequent violations found during inspections were met by security personnel removing the chains and locks while the firefighters waited. The firefighters received lip service that it wouldn’t happen again. To address these continuing blatant violations, the city of Philadelphia made a change in enforcement, whereby the fire marshal could issue a $100 ticket for each locked exit door. In one instance, more than 20 chained and locked doors were found, and a like number of tickets were issued. This solved the problem; all future events had an adequate number of security personnel to prevent illegal entry and no locked fire doors.

Locked exits not only cut down the number of exits that are available but also can cause deadly delays. A fleeing occupant who finds a locked exit door needs to locate another exit. A firefighter might be endangered by relying on an exit as a secondary means of egress, only to find the door locked.

During the Cocoanut Grove nightclub fire, panicked occupants were trapped by locked exits and jammed revolving doors. The life safety code that originated from this fire initiated changes to public assembly buildings that included emergency lighting, exit lights, occupant capacity and outward-opening exit doors.


Some public assemblies are easier to evacuate than others.

A bingo hall can be difficult. Patrons don’t want to be disturbed unless confronted with conditions that they consider life-threatening.

People who are told to leave a movie theater want a refund before exiting, adding confusion and delay.

The ease of evacuating a restaurant depends on whether the patrons already ate their meal. If so, they leave happily; if not, they might resist.

Alarm systems in casinos might not ring in the gaming areas. The owners realize that if patrons are made to leave, many fail to return: The winners rethink their lucky streak, and the losers believe that their luck will change at another casino.

While patronizing a casino, I witnessed a trash-can fire that brought the local fire department, but no alarm ever sounded. The fire was in an area of slot machines and was rolling up the wall. The patrons who were gambling on nearby slot machines shielded themselves from the heat of the fire and continued to gamble, acting as if nothing was amiss. Although it was a minor fire, an audible alarm should have sounded, and evacuation should have been initiated.


The use of pyrotechnics at concerts and other events requires strict code enforcement to ensure the safety of the occupants.

In February 2003, a deadly fire occurred in West Warwick, RI, at the Station nightclub. The blaze killed 100 people and injured 200 others. The fire was started by a band’s pyrotechnic display, which ignited foam decorations and wood paneling. Patrons first recognized danger 24 seconds after ignition, and the bulk of the crowd began to evacuate around the time that the band stopped playing (about 30 seconds after ignition). The heat and smoke detection system was activated 41 seconds after the fire started. Approximately 90 seconds into the fire, about two-thirds of the occupants attempted to leave via the main entrance; a crowd crush occurred at that location, which almost entirely disrupted the flow of the evacuation through the front exit. Flames were observed breaking through the roof less than five minutes after the fire started.

Measurements in a fire test that was conducted by the National Institute of Standards and Technology in a mock-up of the Station nightclub’s platform and dance floor produced temperatures, heat fluxes and combustion gases that were well in excess of accepted survivability limits within 90 seconds. The tremendous speed of this fire, which was captured on film, shows how little time that firefighters had to even attempt to make a difference.

The factors that affected this fire were the use of pyrotechnics and the decorative foam and wood paneling, which easily ignited, causing the rapid fire spread.

Strategic considerations

Overcrowding will compound evacuation problems. There might be a large number of occupants who are unfamiliar with the building hurrying to escape, but in the wrong direction. Lighting might be dimmed for an aesthetic effect. Smoke might further cut visibility. It isn’t always possible to determine whether everyone has been evacuated or whether some individuals still are trapped within a building.

A parking lot full of vehicles could indicate a large number of occupants, but this isn’t always the case. The owners of the vehicles might be patronizing other nearby establishments, or the patrons might have exited the building but are unable to move their vehicles, because the fire department is blocking the exits.

Familiarization with suppression systems lets firefighters know what building protective systems can assist them. When arriving on the scene of a sprinklered building, be prepared to support the sprinklers to ensure an adequate flow of water; stretch hoselines to these systems, and pressurize them if the system has been activated.

A decision must be made on whether firefighters should be committed to fight the fire or assist in evacuation. A direct attack to control the fire often is the best method for saving lives. Coordination is needed to ensure that firefighting efforts don’t endanger occupants who are trapped or evacuating the building. Immediate ventilation often can be a viable strategy for saving lives. The removal of smoke and gases, although initially accelerating the fire, might permit an effective evacuation and fire attack.

Long hoseline stretches must be anticipated, and those that are stretched must not interfere with people who are evacuating. Hoselines can’t be stretched into the building via doorways that are being utilized for evacuation; they would cause confusion and hazards for the fleeing occupants. Firefighters must use another location or wait until the evacuation is completed.

A potential problem in rural areas is the lack of an adequate water supply. The need to request sufficient water tenders must be initiated early—along with assigning a water supply group supervisor.

Identifying problems

The major method to deal with public assembly fires is through preplanning, code enactment and code enforcement. During these processes, potential problems can be found and resolved. Life safety systems must include installation of fire protective systems to alert occupants and control and/or extinguish an incipient fire.

About the Author

James P. Smith

JAMES P. SMITH, who is a Firehouse contributing editor, is a retired deputy chief of the Philadelphia Fire Department. He is an adjunct instructor at the National Fire Academy and the author of the fourth edition of the book "Strategic and Tactical Considerations on the Fireground," which was published by Brady/Pearson.

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