NFPA Journal®, November/December 2007
By Casey C. Grant, P.E.
The Cocoanut Grove fire was an immense tragedy. Yet this event brought about very positive changes in regulations concerning fire safety. Furthermore, it stimulated action all over the nation. Fire officials from all over the country came to Boston in the days following the fire to take back with them the painful lesson learned.
Perhaps the most searing discussion of this subject was published in a front page article of the international newspaper Christian Science Monitor on the Monday following the fire. The following quotation is from this article, entitled “Call for ‘Fire Trap’ Cleanup Follows Night Club Disaster”.
“Boston building laws are in a ‘chaotic condition’, subject to ‘incompetent enforcement, political influence and careless management’ charged Robert S. Moulton of the National Fire Protection Association. ‘The Cocoanut Grove night club tragedy,’ he declared ‘is clearly due to gross violation of several fundamental principles of fire safety, which have been demonstrated by years of experience in other fires, and which should be known to everybody’.
“Expanding upon his charge that Boston’s building code is ‘chaotic’, Mr. Moulton said, ‘the most glaring feature of this tragedy was the lack of proper exits. Revolving doors have long been considered by the National Fire Protection Association Committee on Safety to Life as a menace under fire and panic conditions. Even though a revolving door may be a so-called collapsible type, it can readily serve as a death trap.’ The principal Piedmont Street entrance to the Cocoanut Grove was a revolving door.
“Mr. Moulton pointed out that the National Fire Protection Association had formulated a standard Building Exits Code through representative committees of the Nation’s experts. Under this code, night clubs are ‘rightly considered essentially a place of public assembly’ he declared, ‘in the same class as a theater, but having greater possibilities of fire.'”
In the year following the fire, building codes from coast-to-coast were revamped in accordance with the knowledge gained from the fire. In a United Press article entitled “Nation’s Cities Order Stringent Fire Prevention” that ran four days after the fire, changes in fire regulations were referenced in St. Louis, Miami, Cleveland, Philadelphia, Detroit, Des Moines, Chicago, Kansas City, Albany, and Helena Montana.
And of course the Massachusetts legislature had introduced and adopted a flurry of new measures regulating fire safety in public buildings. One of the first of a series of changes affecting virtually every public building in the Commonwealth of Massachusetts was symbolized by the removal of the two revolving doors from Boston City Hall four days after the fire.
With the widespread and numerous changes in fire safety regulations, the most notable advancements that had gained recognition can be summarized as follows:
• Exits. All portions of a building used for public assemblies should have two separate and remote means of egress. The necessary number of reliable exits should be available for the expected occupancy. Exits should function only with approved panic hardware and swing with the direction of flow. Revolving doors are unacceptable as exits and must be flanked by standard exit doors.
• Combustible Materials. No combustible materials should be used for decorations in places of public assembly. Materials used for interior finishes should conform to nationally recognized test methods.
• Definition of Places of Public Assembly. Surprisingly, night clubs and restaurants had not been considered in many jurisdictions as places of public assembly. After the fire, however, this changed. The shortcoming of building regulations that had evolved based on political favoritism while neglecting real danger were now painfully obvious.
• Emergency Lighting. Lights for an emergency situation should be permanently installed to allow egress from the building. These lights should be reliable and independent from the regular lighting.
• Automatic Sprinklers. Even though overshadowed by such flagrant inadequacies as the lack of proper exits, it was recognized that automatic sprinklers would have dramatically changed the outcome of this fire. This gained recognition as an alternative to difficult regulatory situations, such as an existing restaurant or nightclub located below grade.
Casey C. Grant, P.E. is Research Director for the Fire Protection Research Foundation. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. For more information: http://www.nfpa.org/journalDetail.asp?categoryID=1517&itemID=36758&src=NFPAJournalrel=”nofollow”
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