Online Exclusive: From Curfew to Modern US Fire Safety
- By Jane Embury
- Aug 27, 2013
We tend to think of fire safety as something relatively new: a modern, democratic and enlightened concept that places a value on an individual’s life. However, fire regulation has been an issue for much longer. In Europe, it dates back to the 11th century with William the Conqueror.
Back then, the average house was built from timber, and wattle and daub – a lattice of wooden strips covered with a mixture of soil, clay, sand, straw or animal dung – making it squalid. Roofs were generally thatched, and therefore, flammable. Inside, there was a central hearth and the floor, more often than not, was covered in straw – also flammable. Chimneys, as we know them, didn’t exist. These residential firetraps were generally set side-by-side on narrow streets, so if one caught fire, the chances were that the others would too.
To counter this, William the Conqueror decreed that all fires should be extinguished at night, and the most popular method to achieve this was a simple metal lid that covered the fire to put it out. This lid was called a “couvert feu,” from which is derived the modern word “curfew.”
By the 17th century, the same kind of laws that were being enacted in Britain was also being introduced in the U.S. For example, in 1631, the Governor of Boston, Massachusetts outlawed the building of wooden chimneys and thatched roofs. This, in effect, was America’s first building code.
More regulation followed. In 1648, the Governor of New Amsterdam (New York) created a system of fire wardens, the first fire prevention service in the country. They had the authority to inspect every home for fire safety – including properly-constructed chimneys – and to impose fines in the event of a fire caused by negligence.
Boston continued to lead the way with the first paid firefighters in 1679, and in 1736, the Union Fire Company was established in Philadelphia by Benjamin Franklin.
Historical U.S. Fires
Sadly, however, it has been tragic fires that have shaped fire and building regulations in the United States and around the world. It’s a process that’s been dubbed “codifying by catastrophe,” being wise after the event, until the next tragic fire comes along.
Chicago Fire of 1871. At a time of rapid population growth, in October, the “windy city” lived up to its name when a fire – allegedly started by a cow kicking over a lantern – quickly destroyed one-third of Chicago’s buildings, leaving approximately 250 people dead.
In the aftermath came new regulations on safer spacing between houses and the use of safer construction materials. Even today, National Fire Prevention Week takes place during the first week of October to mark this grim anniversary.
Peshtigo Fire. On the same day as the Great Chicago Fire, there was a much worse disaster – the Peshtigo Fire, the deadliest in U.S. history. This fire in Wisconsin and Michigan fanned by high winds following a period of drought, destroyed over 20 towns and killed more than 1,500 people. But, being a big city, it was Chicago that grabbed the headlines.
Boston Warehouse Fire of 1872. The next year, despite Boston’s reputation nationally as a fire-safe city, came a tragic reality check. A fire in a warehouse quickly spread and firefighters were unable to respond adequately, having to pull equipment by hand because their horses were ill and forced to contend with a poor water supply. Making things worse, warships in the harbor caught fire, setting off gunpowder and other explosives.
In total, some 60 acres of buildings were destroyed. But once again, from the carnage came new building codes and a more robust system of building inspection – an important recognition that building codes are worthless if they’re not enforced.
Iroquois Theater Fire in Chicago of 1903. That’s particularly true for buildings in which large numbers of people congregate. For example, the Iroquois Theater Fire in Chicago in 1903. The play’s scenery caught fire, leading to the deaths of 602 people, the worst single-building fire in US history. A catalogue of faults emerged – including no fire sprinklers or emergency lighting, and that the stage’s fire curtain didn’t work properly, and couldn’t therefore contain the fire. Indeed, containment is a lesson repeatedly learned and promptly forgotten in the history of fire safety.
Baltimore Fire of 1904. This was the next major fire to change regulations as it burned for over 24 hours and destroyed approximately 80 city blocks. New regulations included fire hose standard sizes and couplings.
San Francisco Fire(s) of 1906. Etched into American history is, of course, the 1906 San Francisco earthquake that killed about 450 people. What’s sometimes forgotten is that an estimated 90% of the damage to the city was caused by fire.
Triangle Shirtwaist Factory Fire in New York of 1911. A handful of years later, a fire that, on paper, rewrote building regulations and advanced understanding of how to deal with fires in tall buildings occurred. In this garment factory, this fire claimed 146 lives, and directly led to new laws on building access and egress, fireproofing requirements, automatic sprinkler systems and the availability of fire extinguishers.
(At precisely 4:45 PM EST, in 2011, at the moment the first fire alarm sounded in 1911, hundreds of bells rang out in cities and towns across the U.S. For this commemorative act, the Remember the Triangle Fire Coalition organized hundreds of churches, schools, fire houses and private individuals in the New York City region and across the nation – underlining its significance in the annals of fire history in the U.S. and internationally.)
Rhythm Club Fire in Natchex, Mississippi of 1940. Crowded with patrons and decorated with highly-flammable material, when fire broke out, it spread very quickly. Because the windows had been boarded up to stop people from accessing the club without paying, trapped inside were about 300 people. Since the only exit had doors that opened inward, there were 209 fatalities.
Once again came codifying by catastrophe, setting standards for the number of fire exits, outward-opening exit doors and safer interior materials. This supposedly placed exit strategy at the heart of fire safety, despite the fact that one of the first regulations promulgated by the National Fire Protection Association (NFPA) was the 1927 Building Exits Code.
Cocoanut Grove Nightclub Fire in Boston of 1942. A young, U.S. soldier wanting some privacy with his girlfriend removed the light bulb on their table. When it was reconnected by a staff member, who had to light a match to see better, he accidentally set fire to decorative palm fronds, which rapidly led to flashover.
It led to 492 deaths and remains the country’s worst nightclub fire. Apart from a lack of fire exits and other safety features, the enormous loss of life was greatly exacerbated by fire and toxic fumes spreading unchecked to upper levels of the club. The Cocoanut Grove was essentially an uncontained atrium, so that when the fire broke out, it was able to spread unhindered throughout the building. Containment again. Once more, inward-opening exit doors didn’t help.
As numerous fires have since demonstrated, providing and enforcing adequate escape routes still remains an issue – most recently in a nightclub fire in Brazil earlier this year claimed over 240 lives. Sadly, the Brazilian disaster was tragically similar to the Station nightclub fire in Rhode Island, New Jersey in 2003 – similarly started by indoor pyrotechnics setting fire to flammable material in the walls and ceiling.
The Rhode Island fire, as with the Brazilian inferno, took hold in minutes, killing 100 people and injuring 230. Once again, exits were flooded with people trying to escape, most ignoring alternative exits, opting for the one exit they knew: the entrance at which they had arrived. (This aspect of human flight psychology has important implications for evacuation strategy.)
Beverly Hills Supper Club Fire in Southgate, Kentucky of 1977. Overcrowding should have been sorted out 26 years earlier, yet as this faulty wiring fire engulfed the club, leaving 165 dead, it was found that the venue was hugely overcrowded. There were about 2,750 people inside the establishment, and Kentucky law required 28 exits. The club only had 16 exits.
In addition, not only were many of those exits not clearly marked, but due to the building’s poor design, they could not easily be accessed. Some exits could only be reached by passing through several different areas. Many victims were found in dead-end corridors, having become disorientated and lost.
Winecoff Hotel Fire in Atlanta, Georgia of 1946. Tagged as the worst U.S. hotel fire of the 20th century, leaving 119 dead, this hotel had only recently passed a fire inspection, despite having no fire alarm system no sprinkler system and no fire escapes – all issues that subsequent code changes addressed.
MGM Grand Hotel Fire in Las Vegas of 1980. Known as the worst disaster in Nevada history, 84 people lost their lives, many from smoke inhalation.
While the fire primarily damaged the second floor, most of the deaths occurred on the upper floors, with elevator shafts and stairwells allowing toxic smoke to spread upwards. Once again, fire safety regulations had to be rewritten due to a lack of containment, allowing fire and gases to spread unchecked.
St Anthony’s Hospital Fire in Effingham, Illinois of 1949. Containment, or the lack of it, seems to be a recurring theme as this fire demonstrated – again – that interior materials should be flame-retardant, with effective barriers constructed to contain fire at its source. This hospital had neither fire alarm nor sprinkler systems, and, because the facility lacked any form of containment, the fire spread unchecked, killing over 70 people, including 11 newborn babies.
New codes were swiftly introduced for healthcare facilities, dealing with such issues as fire and smoke barriers – the very containment regulations that, had they been in force, would have saved many lives.
Our Lady of the Angels School Fire in Chicago of 1958. This well-maintained school legally complied with municipal and state fire codes. However, those codes did not address such issues as fire escapes as the school had only one. Nor were there fire doors, an automatic fire alarm, heat detectors or a direct alarm to the fire department.
This fire cost the lives of 92 children and three teaching staff. Another 100 were injured, many seriously. Even the Pope sent his condolences.
After the Our Lady of the Angels School fire, the president of the NFPA said, “There are no new lessons to be learned from this fire; only old lessons that tragically went unheeded.”
A Method of Fire Relief
One way to help ensure fire containment is by using internal and external steel glazing systems. Everything from curtain walling to internal screens and doors can be found in commercial buildings, railway stations, shopping malls, hotels, leisure facilities, and places of worship, including the US Marines Chapel.
The glazing system is designed to prevent fire from spreading from its origin and to provide protected escape routes for building occupants for up to approximately 120 minutes.
When installing the system, glass and steel components should always be specified as one integrated and tested assembly. In a fire, the glass will only be as good as its framing system, or vice versa. If one fails, both may fail, with potentially catastrophic consequences.
We’ve come a long way since William and Conqueror demanded that his subjects place a couvert feu over their hearth fire. Yet again, modern principles and practices for fire safety are exactly the same. Unfortunately, it’s a tragedy that it’s taken so many lost lives along the way to figure this out.
**In the USA and Canada, Wrightstyle supplies through Hope’s Windows, Inc. (Jamestown, NY), a leading manufacturer of steel and bronze glazing systems.