The following first appeared in the March 2001 edition of Protocol, the official publication of the Entertainment Services and Technology Association
by William Conner, ASTC
More than a decade ago I became convinced that the regulations affecting stages were squarely rooted in the theatres before electric lighting and sorely in need of repair and modernization. I had grown weary of searching for reason in the current codes and standards and in applying them to contemporary theatre forms. My inquiries resulted in an invitation to join in the process, first, by joining the NFPA 101 Life Safety Code sub-committee on Assembly Occupancies, and second, by launching a project through the Board for Coordination of the Model Codes (BCMC), which would eventually result in changes to the major national model building codes. In these and other building regulation efforts I represent the American Society of Theatre Consultants.
Proscenium opening protection, particularly in the form of fire curtains, is one of many issues affecting stages and platforms that continues to simmer and remain a topic of discussion among stage equipment contractors, manufacturers, and theatre consultants. This issue has resurfaced recently at the NFPA 5000 code committee level where one manufacturer of the fabric portion of a fire curtain has proposed a return to the regulations of the past. Herein, I share some of my thoughts and conclusions on this issue. I welcome your views, both pro and con, and will attempt to report both in committee discussion.
How hazardous are theatres?
The accuracy of the assumption that a stage or platform represents an above average hazard from fire has changed a lot since the fire curtain concept was introduced into the codes at the turn of the twentieth century. Consider the amount of combustible scenery on the stage of the Iroquois Theatre in Chicago in 1903, which included more than 10,000 square yards of canvas, 3,000 square yards of gauze, and 8,000 board feet of dry white pine lumber, with much of this hung on over 11 miles of 5/8" manila rope over 180 line sets. Furthermore, this scenery was not flame retardant treated and the paints were oil based. In contrast, very few if any theatres accumulate this amount of combustible material on their stages today and certainly no high school or average college theatre. First, the cost of this much scenery, especially the painted wing and drops and box sets of a bygone era, is now prohibitive. Further, much of today's scenery is built of far less flammable material, with greatly increased use of materials that are either inherently flame retardant or treated to be flame retardant.
Similarly, the concept of stage and auditorium as separable compartments is no longer valid. In the past theatres with stages were essentially two buildings with the proscenium wall in common and with little or no contiguous support space. Contrast that to modern era performing arts centers or even typical high schools where both the auditorium and stage are connected and surrounded by ancillary space. Also as a result of concerts in arenas, all forms of open stages, and even the common practice of building through the proscenium of a traditional theatre, the concept of separating the combustible scenery in a stage from auditorium is much less achievable than in the past
Another commonly held belief is the often raised concern for panic and the notion that the fire curtain will somehow prevent panic because the hazard is hidden. The normal physiological panic reaction is a wonderful and healthy thing and has saved many lives. Based on published, peer-reviewed research, even correctly labeled anti-social behavior is not a relevant issue in the case of fires. As long as people can see the hazard and can see a path to safety, occupant behavior is not anti-social but is quite altruistic. When considering occupant behavior it is important to separate other hazards, such as crowd crush or earthquakes, from that presented by fire on a stage.
How good are sprinklers?
Modern stages and practically all new theatres are required to be sprinklered. The efficacy of modern sprinkler systems is better than 99%. In two theatres in the 1990s, there were fires involving substantial drapery and in both instances the fire was suppressed by the sprinkler system. (Significantly, in both cases the fire curtain did not operate.) Also, the efficacy of smoke control, whether by gravity through holes in the roofs of stages (smoke hatches) or mechanical exhaust powered by an emergency or standby power source, is greatly improved and understood. Most modern large assembly facilities such as stadia and arenas and some large theatres depend upon smoke control to permit significantly reduced capacity in the means of egress. It is a well understood and tested tool for protection from the hazards of fire in assembly occupancies. Summarily, either sprinklers or smoke control will protect the audience from the hazards of fire and the combination affords both sufficient and redundant protection from fire.
As an aside, many have derided the use of a deluge system for proscenium opening protection. Deluge systems have activated without a fire, resulting in significant water damage to the building and contents. This has often been the result of vandals. It needn't be a choice between a functioning deluge system and risk of water damage and a non-functioning fire curtain and a risk of body bags. Also, with good design, pre-action systems, such as used in some computer rooms, are quite feasible and may prevent some false activations. With more development, activation of deluge systems can be improved so that nearly fail-safe systems are possible.
Do fire curtains work?
Of great significance is the fact that fire curtains in the United States are very unreliable, especially in emergency operation. In an informal survey of major stage equipment contractors, there was the consensus that fewer than 25% of the fire curtains in this country would close if there was a fire, and most contractors suggested between zero and ten percent. Unfortunately, most of the regulations and proposed changes affecting fire curtains address the fabric and not the entire assembly or system. Also unfortunately, no organization has yet focused on developing a standard. For sure, it is not a deficiency of the fabric that so few actually operate. Conversely, sprinklers, including deluge systems, and smoke control have proven very reliable.
Even if one accepts that in some stages proscenium opening protection is an appropriate feature for protection from the hazards of fire, it is certainly appropriate that it be limited to only the largest full working stages and not to the average high school, college, and small theatre stages. Thus, what criteria or measurements are used to trigger the requirement for proscenium opening protection is important since previously the "retractable" criterion was very controversial? Indeed, the impetus to write this article is the recent submittal of code change proposals that reintroduce the "retractable" criterion as the trigger for a fire curtain and delete the “fifty-foot height” criterion. The interpretation of "retractable" has frequently been misapplied to moving props and furniture on and off stage, flying small objects over an open stage, or adjustable acoustic canopies, to name a few examples. Furthermore, the concept that the very ability to raise and lower a single setting of lights and curtains somehow increased the hazard was ludicrous. This led the BCMC to a matrix of five stage types, based primarily on height and floor area, and a determination of fire protection features appropriate to each type. (For details, see www.esta.org/tsp/bcmc.htm) Undeniably, interpretation has been much quicker, surer, and more consistent since the changes first proposed by the BCMC I believe, as do quite a few others in the areas of codes and standards and fire protection, that the heights and area trigger is still a very conservative and safe approach.
What do we do?
Hopefully, as the concept of performance based codes gains popularity and we become less reliant on the prescriptive codes of the past, facilities will be less dependent on the proscenium wall and proscenium opening protection as a primary means of life safety protection. Currently, only the Life Safety Code permits no proscenium opening protection on any stage, and then only if the facility complies with the requirements for Smoke Protected Assembly Seating.
There is a task group of the NFPA sub-committee charged with studying the current proposals and bringing recommendations to the committee at its July 23-25, 2001 meeting in Chicago. I assure you that the committee would welcome your input; either as formal written comments submitted per the rules and procedures; as a guest at the meeting where traditionally you would be welcomed to speak and respond to the committee; or, at the least, as passed along to members of the committee informally.
I will close by repeating my challenge many of you have probably heard. I have yet to find any clear record that a fire curtain has ever prevented civilian fatalities or injuries. I challenge anyone to show that since the electric light bulb was in common use and in a sprinklered stage that a fire curtain has indeed prevented civilian fatalities or injuries in this country.
The ASTC and I personally would like to thank the following manufacture's for their faith and confidence in the ASTC as evidenced by their no-strings-attached financial contribution for the considerable expense incurred in the BCMC project: American Seating Corp.; H&H Specialities; Irwin Seating Co.; J.R. Clancy, Inc.; NSI/Colortran; SECOA; StageRight Co.; Strand Lighting Co.; Texas Scenic; and Wenger Performance Div.
William Conner is a Principal at Schuler & Shook, Inc. with over twenty years of professional theatre consulting experience. He has significant knowledge of all major model building codes including extensive involvement with code development at the national level. Bill is a member of the American Society of Theatre Consultants, U.S. Institute for Theatre Technology, and the National Fire Protection Association. You may reach Bill by e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org or by fax at 312-944-8297.