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History of Fire Prevention & Codes

Historical Fires That Have Shaped Fire Codes

We study history to learn from past events.  We learn what worked well in situations, and what could be improved if the situation were to arise again.  Catastrophic fire events are not an exception.   Throughout the history of fighting fires, building construction has changed.  Some buildings were considered “fireproof” yet stole the lives of the people inside.  Others were simply not following the enforced fire codes at the time, causing many people to perish.

The Iroquois Theatre fire took place in Chicago, Illinois, in 1903.  This building was considered “absolutely fireproof”, yet a fire broke out and killed 602 people.  Fire codes were not followed, leaving exits blocked, no sprinkler systems or fire alarms or working fire extinguishers.  This event led to restrictions on maximum occupancy and improved egress and exits.

The Triangle Shirtwaist Company fire of 1911 had several of the same problems as the Iroquois Theatre.  This fire started the implementation of mandatory fire drills, the inclusion of sprinkler systems, and more guidelines for fire escapes.

In Boston, Massachusetts, in 1942, the Cocoanut Grove Nightclub fire occurred.  With a death toll standing at 492, this fire is still known as the deadliest nightclub fire in the United States.  There were numerous combustible finishes, poorly marked exits and exits that were sealed shut, as the owner did not want people to sneak in or out of the club.  The Cocoanut Grove fire promoted advancement with revolving doors, exits, and placed more restrictions on the combustibility of interior finishes and furnishings.

In 1958, a private school in Chicago, Illinois had a fire begin in a trashcan in the basement.  Our Lady of the Angels school had fire spread throughout the school and into the attic, blocking many of the escape routes.  The rapid spread was due to the high quantity of combustible materials and few safety measures.  This fire led to the addition of fire alarms, sprinkler systems, fire door and emergency lighting in school buildings.  This fire further displayed the importance of escape route planning and design.

The MGM Grand Hotel fire occurred in Las Vegas, Nevada in 1980.  The hotel had no sprinkler system.  When the fire broke out, the flame and smoke spread were not able to be contained.  Many guests on the upper floors were exposed to toxic smoke due to poor ventilation.  This catastrophic event outlined the need for sprinkler systems in large buildings and taught the importance of limiting smoke travel during a fire.

The most memorable of all the fires for our generation is the Station Nightclub fire that occurred in 2003.  The band Great White started to perform to the crowd, there were pyrotechnics that were part of the show, which ignited the soundproofing foam on the stage.  Unfortunately, there was no fire sprinkler system and the chaos caused people to pile up in front of the exit.  This fire proved that even in newer buildings, fire sprinkler systems are still a crucial way to contain fires.  This event also stressed the importance of Class A retardant paint and coatings on walls and ceilings and having a good means of egress for occupants in the event of an emergency.

Unfortunately, fire codes are still not always followed, even though history has taught us how important they are.  If you have questions about fire codes and fire safety, please reach out.  We are happy to explain and answer any questions you may have.