Last week, presidential candidate Donald Trump criticized fire marshals in a few states for upholding occupancy requirements at campaign events. The story created a bit of a buzz but also an opportunity for a refresher on why these requirements, in not only political events but also things like concerts, sporting events and other gatherings, are important and what can happen when they are not followed.
Building, fire and life safety codes like NFPA 101, Life Safety Code® are intended to protect people attending events - a particularly challenging task where people are gathered in a more concentrated use area. This includes the speakers, performers, staff and audience members, as well as the first responders who potentially risk their lives when something goes wrong. The codes are developed through a time-tested voluntary consensus process that brings together a range of stakeholders to create the minimum level of safety. The codes are then adopted by jurisdictions. Fire marshals and other authorities having jurisdiction (AHJs) enforce these codes. It is often an overlooked but essential role in public safety.
Not metering or otherwise controlling the number of people who can go into an assembly occupancy can lead to overcrowding. In the event of an emergency, occupants can easily get caught up in a crowd crush and be unable to reach an exit in a safe and timely manner. One such tragic event was the E2 Nightclub on Chicago’s South Side in February 2003.
NFPA 101’s provisions are often fire-centric, but there are other triggering events such as a power failure, violence (the action that initiated the E2 crowd crush), or medical emergencies that can cause the occupants in a large assembly space to move towards an exit to escape a potential emergency. These provisions are part of the code requirements, are used to establish the number of occupants who might occupy the space, and are imposed to keep everyone safe in an emergency.
You typically see “maximum permitted occupancy” signs in ballrooms, meeting rooms and auditoriums where a large number of people might be anticipated for good reason. When capacity is exceeded and the number of exits are not adequate for crowds – historic tragedies like The Station nightclub fire that killed 100 in Rhode Island can occur.
In some of these campaign events the venue worked to accommodate the event organizers by setting up video monitors and chairs in adjacent spaces to allow some of the overflow crowd to come inside, a reasonable action when the primary event space is over capacity.
The fire marshals in these situations are doing their jobs – and doing them well. Their enforcement of codes is something that the public and we expect, and rely on to keep us safe.