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Night Club Fires: A Dance with Tragedy

Wm. Lance Smith, FF/EMT


            The events that often lead to tragedy could have been prevented through education and more comprehensive prevention. Preparation for such events can also reduce the negative outcomes of these events. Preparation and planning of a disaster should not be limited to plane crashes or hazmat spills, but should include structures with a large assemblage of patrons or occupants. Pre incident planning could have made a difference at night club fires.

            Night club fires have plagued those wanting a night free of the cares of the world. The first night club fire that would make history in our nation was the 1942 Coconut Grove fire in Boston, Massachusetts. It is disheartening to realize that little was learned from this fire over the years, fires at the Beverly Hills Supper Club South Gate, KY in 1977, Stardust Disco Dublin, Ireland in 1981, Gothenberg Disco, Sweden 1998, Station Night Club Fire in West Warwick, RI the E2 Night Club Chicago, IL both in 2003, and the Kiss Night Club Santa Maria, Brazil in 2013 all have very tragic similarities we should have learned from the Coconut Grove fire.

            The similarities are overcrowding of the clubs exceeding the safe occupancy levels of the clubs. Another is the use of pyrotechnics or flammable interior designs on the walls. An even tragic and negligent factor was the bypassing of safety devices or codes. In the Coconut Grove fire the side door was hinged to open inward and the only other exit was a revolving door at the front. In the Stardust Disco fire a doors had been locked, “It was possible to open the crash bars from outside and get in so they had chained them.” (McMahon, 1999) This prevented the occupants from escaping. Those who could not get out suffocated from carbon monoxide, super-heated fire gases, and by trampling. Others would die from thermal injuries.

Some of these clubs had been inspected, however the show still went on without correcting issues or violating fire codes and ordinances. These codes and ordinances are there to prevent injury or death that is why there are Life Safety Codes. “One of the most frustrating things about the Rhode Island nightclub fire is that this tragedy could have been prevented. If NFPA codes had been followed, there would have been no fire.” (Shannon 2003) As for the codes and ordinances in the foreign night clubs there were possibly similar regulations on occupancy or the use of flammable materials as decorations.

To prevent these tragedies from occurring in the US, new NFPA standards were developed or amended. The most important change is for night clubs to have sprinkler systems. This will not only aid in extinguishing the fire or holding it in check, but may reduce panic among patrons. The second important change is the requirement for the manager to check all exits and that they are free of clutter and functioning properly. Properly working fire exits are part of an inspection and are required by Life Safety Code. These doors should exit on to a public street allowing egress from the fire building.

Pre event inspection should be made by a fire marshal to insure that the venue is following the fire and life safety code. The fire marshal has the authority to shut down a venue or occupancy if there is a danger to the public. He or she should also determine if pyrotechnics will be part of the show. If they are part of the show they should be done under very strict guidelines by a licensed pyro technician.

Education of the public should also be part of preventing further tragedy. Teaching would be night club patrons about situational awareness may help them to notice and make a mental

note as to the location of the nearest fire exit or fire extinguisher. Most important is not to panic, egress in an orderly and efficient manner as to prevent further panic. Also, have them think about what the club looks like when they arrive, if it looks over crowded then it probably is. Human behavior can be hard to change, especially if there are underlying cultural, ethnic, economic, and social differences. An effort must be made however to steer this behavior away from destruction and injury.

Law enforcement, fire, EMS, and local health agencies can also prepare for the possibility of such an incident in their community by conducting drills. By using the local fire hall or an actual night club filled with victims, a scenario such as a fire can be played out. Each agency would respond as if it were a real incident. EMS would then transport “victims” to the local hospital to be further triaged and treated for “injuries”. This is also an opportunity to practice NIMS and ICS skills that will help aid in the response and mitigation of such an emergency.

These fires should be a warning to all of us of what can happen should the prevention of a risk is not reduced or mitigated. It is not something better to “burn out than, yeah fade away” (Def Leppard, 1983), as these tragedies should remain in our minds and studies in a cognitive effort to prevent loss of life from happening again. The identification of risk and evaluating how to reduce it is not a new concept. Dr. William Haddon, Jr. developed his matrix to identify the events or factors that cause injury or death and ways to prevent or reduce these injuries. “The strategy is to reduce losses due to injuries rather than merely focus on prevention.” (Thygerson, 2008, p. 24) By using a Haddon Matrix we can factor in the contributing factors to the cause of

these injuries at night clubs and further develop a strategy to reduce the frequency of these injuries. Unfortunately it is too late for those who perished in these night clubs or who will carry the emotional and physical scars for the rest of their lives.

            Fires such as these also create an economic toll on the community. The victims lost can no longer contribute to their families or communities. There can be a loss of job production due to an injury, or an employer having to replace a worker lost at a night club fire. They can cost revenue to the local or state government because the concert hall is now closed and there are no tickets to sale. It can also cost a municipality in a civil or criminal case should it be found that the structure was not properly inspected. Economic loss however cannot replace the loss of a life.






Father McMahon Quote from Faith, N. (1999) Blaze: The Forensics of Fire New York, NY: St. Martin’s Press

Shannon Quote, National Fire Protection Association, (2014). The Station Nightclub Fire, Retrieved 05/01/2015 from

Def Lepperd (1983) Rock of Ages. Pyromania. Mercury Records.

Thygerson, Alton L.. Injury Prevention: Competencies for Unintentional Injury Prevention Professionals, 3rd Edition. Jones & Bartlett Learning, 2008. VitalBook file.

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