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Fire codes exist to protect. Over the years, there have been many high-profile fires that have resulted in significant changes to the fire codes. The first major fire that forced authorities to think about establishing codes and standards was the “Great Chicago Fire” in October 1871. In fact, Fire Prevention Week, which marks the event, is an ongoing effort as a reminder that prevention works. 

After the Great Chicago Fire, new codes were established that regulated building materials, as well as created building separations. The devastation wrought by this fire also contributed to the now common practice of government agencies zoning areas of the city differently, so that high-risk occupancies were not situated near those with a life safety hazard. Similarly, The Triangle Shirtwaist Fire of 1911 in New York City was the driving force in establishing NFPA 101, the Life Safety Code. 

Many other fires have resulted in changes to the existing codes or the development of entirely new standards. One fact that stands out, however, is that despite the important changes in the codes, the same mistakes are made repeatedly, resulting in loss of life and property.

For example, exits which are blocked or not properly marked is a recurring theme in multiple death fires, as is exceeding the occupancy loading. All buildings are assigned a safe occupancy number based on the building construction and number of exits. (Although there are other factors that may play a role, these are the major ones for establishing the building occupancy.)

In many historic, multiple death fires, the occupancy has been grossly exceeded. Some of these fires were in buildings that were even branded “fire proof.” 
The Ohio State Penitentiary was one such purported “fire proof” building. In 1930, however, The Ohio State Penitentiary Fire resulted in 320 casualties out of a population of just over 4,000. This fire also resulted in the addition of new code for fire alarms and sprinkler systems, and smoke control systems in modern detention applications. 

The Coconut Grove Nightclub Fire in November of 1942 is an example of extreme overloading. On the night of the fire, the building was estimated to have contained more than 1,000 people inside. This resulted in the death of 492 people -- in a building with an occupancy of only 460. More people died in this fire than were even allowed in it by law. 

This fire resulted in changes to exit door requirements, as well as the regulation of the materials brought into buildings. Many of the deaths at The Coconut Grove Nightclub Fire were due to smoke inhalation based on the materials used to establish the Caribbean theme of the venue. When these materials burned, a toxic smoke was emitted. The club also was also not equipped with sprinklers; but after this event, changes to the codes required sprinkler systems in assembly occupancies. 

As recently as 1977, overcrowding was still a major concern. The Beverly Hills Supper Club Fire is another example of an assembly occupancy that was dangerously overloaded. There were approximately 3,000 people in the building, which had no sprinklers or alarm systems installed. As a result, after this fire, requirements were strengthened for assembly occupancies for 300+ people.

The Great Adventure Haunted House Fire in New Jersey in 1984 resulted in changes and additions for special amusement occupancies. This fire was ignited by someone in the maze of the haunted house using a lighter to see better. The lighter set foam and other wall coverings on fire. Although accidental in nature, this fire resulted in the deaths of eight people. Today, these occupancies have multiple requirements including sprinklers, a voice-based alarm system and the shutdown of any distractions or special effects. There is also now a requirement for evacuation lighting when the system activates. 

When major events with a large loss of life occur, the codes react. But, the importance of following the codes and adhering to occupancy numbers cannot be overstressed. The most important thing that can be learned from these tragedies is that fire prevention is everyone’s job.


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