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#101Wednesdays: Planning for the unthinkable in assembly venues with the Life Safety Code

Blog Post created by gharrington Employee on Oct 4, 2017
concert crowd
As we all try to wrap our heads around this past Sunday’s horrific mass shooting in Las Vegas, my heart goes out to all those who were affected by this senseless act. I also struggle with what I, as a life safety professional, can meaningfully contribute to the conversation going forward. I realize that about the best I can do is discuss what I know, and that’s the Life Safety Code. While the Code has been focused historically on occupant life safety from fire, its scope has expanded over the past couple decades to include protection from other similar emergencies. One area on which the Code has focused is the protection of occupants in assembly venues from myriad emergencies via planning. Here is a brief overview of the resources provided by the Code for planners of large assembly events.
Crowd Managers
The Life Safety Code requires all assembly venues to be provided with trained crowd managers who can assist with evacuation in an emergency by directing attendees to safe egress points. Of course, in a situation like the Las Vegas mass shooting, it’s difficult or impossible to know where the safe egress points are located. Nonetheless, crowd managers can have a positive impact on the outcome of an assembly occupancy emergency. More details on crowd managers can be found in my #101Wednesdays post from this past May.
Means of Egress
The Life Safety Code is primarily concerned with life safety in buildings and structures. It recognizes, however, the need for adequate means of egress from fenced outdoor assembly venues as well. The assembly occupancy chapters require the following in 12.2.4.4 and 13.2.4.4:
A fenced outdoor assembly occupancy shall have not less than two remote means of egress from the enclosure in accordance with 7.5.1.3, unless otherwise required by one of the following:
(1) If more than 6000 persons are to be served by such means of egress, there shall be not less than three means of egress.
(2) If more than 9000 persons are to be served by such means of egress, there shall be not less than four means of egress.
The capacity of the means of egress from an outdoor assembly venue would be based on the modified capacity factors for smoke-protected assembly seating, which permit reduced egress widths because of the expectation that smoke will not accumulate in the outdoor venue. This reduced egress capacity makes sense from a life safety from fire standpoint; however, when planning for an incident in which occupants might need to flee for their lives under a hail of gunfire, perhaps the reduced egress capacities should be given further consideration. See 12.4.2 and 13.4.2 for details on smoke-protected assembly seating.
Life Safety Evaluation
Perhaps the most significant requirement in Life Safety Code as it relates to an incident such as that which occurred in Las Vegas is that for a written life safety evaluation (LSE) in assembly venues having an occupant load of more than 6,000, and those with festival seating (e.g., standing room with no seats) for more than 250. The LSE is required to consider a broad range of potential emergencies; as we now know, that broad range of emergencies needs to include the unthinkable. Details on the LSE are provided in 12.4.1, 13.4.1, and associated Annex A provisions. A recent NFPA Journal article provides a good overview of what an LSE is intended to achieve. Coincidentally, it describes an LSE as it would apply to a music festival, not unlike the one attacked this week. While no one could have imagined how an outdoor concert venue could be vulnerable to automatic weapon fire from a nearby high-rise hotel, it is this type of unthinkable scenario that needs to be considered in the LSE. A response plan must be developed, practiced, and then, should the unthinkable occur, put into action.
Risk Analysis for Mass Notification
New to the 2018 edition, the Code now requires some new occupancies to have a risk analysis performed to determine the need for mass notification systems. The results of the risk analysis determine whether a mass notification system to alert people of any number of emergencies, which could include fire, an impending weather event (e.g., a tornado), or an active shooter incident, is needed. The 2018 edition of the Code requires new assembly occupancies with an occupant load of 500 or more to have such a risk analysis performed. If deemed to be required, the mass notification system is required to comply with NFPA 72, National Fire Alarm and Signaling Code. In 2013, NFPA Journal published this cover story about the use of a mass notification system at a large assembly venue.
I don’t know if we’ll ever be able to completely eliminate the heinous acts of violence we witnessed this week. I do believe, however, it’s important for us to keep doing what we do and educate event planners of the need to plan for the worst-case scenario. We’re in the business of saving lives. If a bit of additional forethought might help to save a life in the future, I believe it is a worthy effort. It’s also important for us to continue to go to music festivals, do the things we enjoy, and live our lives. I plan to attend the NFPA Conference and Expo next June in Las Vegas at the Mandalay Bay. I’m sure when I’m there I’ll pause to remember those whose lives were lost this week. Then I will try to make whatever small contribution I can towards making the world a safer place. Our work is too important to be scared away by the memory of a madman bent on snuffing out innocent lives while they were enjoying a country music festival on the Las Vegas Strip.
Thank you for taking a few moments to read, and please be safe.
Got an idea for a topic for a future #101Wednesdays? Post it in the comments below – I’d love to hear your suggestions!
Did you know NFPA 101 is available to review online for free? Head over to www.nfpa.org/101 and click on “Free access to the 2015 edition of NFPA 101.”
Follow me on Twitter: @NFPAGregH

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