Open letter from the Board of Directors
and the ASTC Code Committee

3 April 2002

Subject:  An open letter concerning theatre industry involvement in code development.

A vendor of proscenium fire curtains has recently circulated a paper on the code development efforts of the American Society of Theatre Consultants (ASTC).  The paper, written by Gregory J. Cahanin, misrepresents the actions and motives of the Society, and contains additional misstatements of fact.  As the directors of the Society and representatives of the code committee of the Society, we write to correct the public record.

The American Society of Theatre Consultants is the professional organization for theatre planners working in the United States.  Individuals who are ASTC members represent all major theatre planning firms, and most facilities for the performing arts are designed with the assistance of ASTC members.  The ASTC membership has considerable experience and specialty knowledge concerning the design of facilities for live performance.  The ASTC maintains liaisons with other professional organizations representing the theatre industry, including the International Association of Auditorium Managers, the United States Institute for Theatre Technology, and the Entertainment Services and Technology Association (ESTA).

For many years, codes and standards affecting the theatre industry were developed without the participation of representatives of the industry.  This situation has changed dramatically in the past 20 years, and the ASTC has been at the forefront of the change.  ASTC members have volunteered time to bring positive change to codes and standards for theatre.  This involvement has been broad based, encompassing work with many public and private bodies on a wide range of topics concerning facilities for live performance. This work has been coordinated with other industry organizations and has been supported—financially and otherwise—by industry manufacturers. Efforts have included work with the Board of Coordination of Model Codes, the NFPA, the ICC and its predecessor organizations, the ADA advisory committee, and the committee for ANSI A117.1.  For the past 15 years the Society has had formal representation on the NFPA Assembly Occupancy committee.

A significant early effort of the Society was the rewriting of requirements for stages under the auspices of the Board for Coordination of Model Codes.  The goal was to improve safety, and specifically to address the shortcomings of applying antiquated code language to new types of theatre spaces.  The board’s “Report on Stages, Platforms and Sound Stages” was published May 5, 1992.  For the first time, this report provided code language that reflected an understanding of the workings of theatre, the variety of room types and shapes that are used as theatres, identification of the life safety hazards associated with each room type, and a clear strategy for protecting against those hazards.  The BCMC language has been widely accepted by the fire protection community and has been incorporated into all model building codes—BOCA, UBC, SBC, IBC, and NFPA 5000.

The BCMC report provides clear, measurable standards for determining the amount of scenery and other ordinary combustible materials on stage and therefore the required fire protection elements.  One standard is the use of stage height to determine the requirement for a fire safety curtain to close the proscenium opening—in simple terms, fire curtains are required on stages greater than 50 feet in height (stage floor to roof deck).  The board established the 50-foot criterion based on an understanding of the level of hazard present in stages of this height, the knowledge that sprinklers have been tested and found effective at this height, and the associated requirements for smoke control in these spaces. This language provides clear guidance to building designers and building and fire officials in determining code compliance.  Earlier code language used poorly defined classifications such as “regular” and “legitimate” stages, or language that “retractable” scenic elements triggered the requirement for a fire safety curtain. This earlier language did not recognize the existence of the many theatre types where audience and performance are in one room, and no proscenium opening exists.

Mr. Cahanin and his colleagues are attempting to reverse ten years of progress in code development. They wish to reinstate the “retractable” language or—alternatively—reduce the 50-foot criterion to 25 feet.  They have several code change proposals before the IBC hearings later this month.  They have been unsuccessful in reversing code progress before the NFPA Assembly Occupancy committee, but threaten to bring their change proposals to the NFPA annual meeting in May. Not being successful on the merits of his case, Mr. Cahanin has resorted to ad hominem arguments.

In a related effort, Mr. Cahanin and his colleagues have attempted to incorporate the old UBC fire curtain standard into the NFPA 80 Standard for Fire Doors and Windows.  The ASTC believes the UBC standard is a highly prescriptive, technically deficient standard that has not served the industry well. Further, we believe the processing of this proposal (log CP#33) was flawed in that the proposal as published in the Report on Proposals (ROP) differed substantially from what was presented at the committee meeting and, further, that the published tally of the letter ballot is incorrect. ASTC has written a formal request to the NFPA Standard Council, requesting that this proposal be held for processing in a future revision cycle, when an open and deliberate consensus process can prevail.

The ASTC believes that fire safety curtains are appropriate fire protection measures for some facilities.  These facilities represent the highest level of hazard, and are the facilities that historically have been provided with fire curtains.  Currently, there is no widely accepted standard for fire curtains, and we believe a well written, performance based standard would benefit the entire theatre industry.  That is why we are working with ESTA to develop a standard for fire curtain performance.  The ESTA standards process is ANSI-certified and consensus based, with wide participation by theatre industry representatives.  We invite all parties interested in a consensus process and truthful discussion to join the ESTA effort.
American Society of Theatre Consultants

Todd Hensley, President
Michael McMackin, Vice-President
Edgar Lustig, Secretary/CFO
S. Leonard Auerbach, Director
James Read, Director
William Conner, Code Committee
Eugene Leitermann, Code Committee