It seems inevitable at this time of the year that several news stories pop up about a haunted house business or a home or building being converted into a makeshift haunted house being shut down due to safety concerns. Haunted houses are a common form of entertainment over these next couple of weeks. They come in many forms, whether it’s a standalone seasonal building that operates as a haunted house or a building such as a church, a community center, or a school that creates a haunted house, maybe for a town event, a fundraiser, or a feature to a festival. Large or small, permanent or temporary, professional or amateur, haunted houses and the like are everywhere, especially in buildings not originally designed to accommodate such a use. Without the proper knowledge and understanding of the codes that apply, haunted houses can be a safety nightmare.
Per NFPA 1, Fire Code, a haunted house is considered a special amusement building. By definition, a special amusement building is "a building that is temporary, permanent, or mobile and contains a device or system that conveys passengers or provides a walkway along, around, or over a course in any direction as a form of amusement arranged so that the egress path is not readily apparent due to visual or audio distractions or an intentionally confounded egress path, or is not readily available due to the mode of conveyance through the building or structure." A special amusement building is an assembly occupancy regardless of occupant load. Buildings designed as assembly occupancies have a head start on those that aren’t, but try to accommodate a haunted house type attraction. A big risk, and often why many of these attractions are shut down, is because they are located in a structure that was not designed with a haunted house use in mind and they do not understand the type of occupancy and hazards associated with that occupancy that have been created. The Code is not against haunted houses and there is no ill intent when they are shut down. Ultimately, it’s for the safety of those attending and those that work at these facilities and the responsibility of those inspecting the Fire Code to ensure that a horrific fire event is prevented.
Haunted houses use special effects, scenery, props, and audio and visual distractions that may cause egress paths to become not obvious. In haunted houses in particular, the presence of combustible materials and special scenery can also contribute to the fuel load should a fire occur. Because of this, the Code requirements are purposely strict to in hopes of avoiding a potentially disastrous fire event.
Code provisions for special amusement buildings are found in Section 20.1.4 of NFPA 1. The Code requirements for haunted houses are summarized below:
- Haunted houses must apply the provisions for assembly occupancies in addition to the provisions of Section 20.1.4.
- Automatic sprinklers are required for all haunted houses. If the haunted house is considered moveable or portable, an approved temporary means is permitted to be used for water supply.
- Smoke detection is required throughout the haunted house where the nature it operates in reduced lighting and the actuation of any smoke detection device must sound an alarm at a constantly attended location on the premises.
- Actuation of sprinklers or any suppression systems, smoke detection system (having a cross zoning capability) must provide an increase in illumination of the means of egress and termination of other confusing visuals or sounds.
- Exit marking and floor proximity exit signs are required. Where designs are such that the egress path is not apparent, additional directional exit marking is required.
- Interior wall and ceiling finish materials must be Class A throughout.
- Per Section 10.8.1, emergency action plans are required.
Other requirements, not specific just to haunted houses or special amusement buildings, may also apply:
- Permits (see Section 1.12)
- Seasonal buildings (see Section 10.12)
- Special outdoor events, fairs and carnivals (see Section 10.14)
As we move into the Halloween and haunted house season, it’s easy to get caught up in the fun and overlook the safety issues that may arise. Through the provisions in NFPA 1, which can assist fire code officials and inspectors enforce safe haunted houses, and NFPA's halloween resources for consumers, everyone can stay safe this season.
Thank you for reading, stay safe!
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