The world was stunned by the tragic club fire in Rhode Island on February 20, in which more than 90 people were killed. This sad outcome was caused by many factors but the possible reckless use of indoor pyrotechnics was the trigger. It will go down in history as the second-largest club fire in this country's history. In addition to the horrendous pain and suffering felt by so many, the incident was played and replayed throughout the media for several days, raising questions in the public mind about the safety of indoor pyrotechnics. Such exposure is bound to affect the entertainment industry. As we write this, an intensive investigation is underway into the event in order to determine who will bear the responsibility. As this happens, the entertainment technology industry is taking a fresh look at the future of indoor pyrotechnics.
In light of the tragedy, manufacturers, designers, and standards consultants are reaffirming the industry's longstanding commitment to the safe use of pyrotechnics. Of course, the key word is “safe.” In a press release from the American Pyrotechnic Association (APA), executive director Julie L. Heckman states, “By adhering to common sense, practical safety tips, and employing the services of a licensed professional pyrotechnics company or certified pyrotechnics operator, indoor pyrotechnics can be an exciting and safe entertainment medium.” Heckman also notes that for more than 30 years indoor pyrotechnics have been enjoyed by millions of spectators and have enhanced theatrical productions, rock concerts, sporting events, ice shows, and political conventions.
Defining What's Safe
The problem, it seems, is making sure that pyrotechnics are used in a safe and responsible manner. At this time, there is no national licensing or certification program for pyro. While some aspects of the industry fall under minimal regulations imposed by the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms, these leave large gaps and more questions than answers. Nearly everyone we spoke to for this article agrees strongly on the need for some form of national standards. What currently exists is a patchwork of local regulations that leaves many bewildered. Doug Adams, owner and lead designer for Pyrotek Special Effects Inc., says, “There should be some regulation, some license, something that covers across the country. I have almost 50 different licenses, permits, or certifications.” Adams isn't referring to 50 states; rules change from city to city within a given state. Nathan Kahn, president of Theatre Effects Inc., points out, “One of the problems is that each state has separate regulations — and even town by town. It is very hard to keep track of it all. I would back a national certification program from ESTA [the Entertainment Services and Technology Association] or the APA. That would be great.” Adrian Segeren, president of Le Maitre Special Effects Inc., concurs. “Hopefully we can move toward more national regulations and get away from the regulations changing at each local area. There has to be a licensing or certification program on a national level. How long that will take is unknown.”
Usually, industry organizations take the lead in these matters; in this case, that would be ESTA and APA. “ESTA is concerned,” says Karl G. Ruling, the organization's technical standards manager, adding, “We don't have a standards project underway at the moment for pyrotechnics, but we are looking at doing something with the APA. We could help them write a standard for certification, which they could hand to the federal government when the idea of national licensing starts to get looked at seriously. That may result in some form of uniformity in licensing across the United States.” The APA is aware that it will take time to write regulations, so Heckman, in the APA press release, points to the National Fire Protection Association (NFPA) Standard 1126, Standard for Use of Pyrotechnics Before a Proximate Audience, which has become the industry's consensus code: “While there are no national certification and licensing requirements for pyrotechnics operators, many states have implemented certification or licensing programs. One should request that NFPA Standard 1126 be strictly adhered to, especially if your state or local jurisdiction has no detailed legal requirements for indoor pyrotechnics. While the NFPA 1126 Standard has not been adopted in every state, the APA deems this standard to be the prudent operator's definitive guide and urges members of the industry to strictly comply with the standard.”
The NFPA 1126 standard is well known to all in the pyrotechnics and fire marshal communities. Everyone agrees that it works, if adhered to. Kahn says, “The NFPA 1126 has done a lot to help. It was a big step forward nationally.” Segeren agrees, adding, “If you are using pyro, then you should know the NFPA 1126 code; it is a small price to pay for safety.” Immediately after the Rhode Island fire, many pushed to write and strengthen codes, but NFPA 1126 may not need rewriting. Ruling says, “There will likely not be any major changes in it. If it is followed properly not much can go wrong.”
Jules Lauve, senior consultant at Theatre Projects Consultants and former special effects committee member with the NFPA, concurs that adherence to existing laws is paramount. “If the existing laws had been followed there very likely wouldn't have been an incident and the subsequent loss of lives. You have to know and obey the laws. Saying that it's a maze is unacceptable if one wants to dabble in technology that is often complicated and extremely dangerous. The applicable laws are pretty straightforward; when adhered to they invariably contribute to avoiding injury and damage.”
Bill Conner, a principal at Schuler & Shook Inc. who sits on the Life Safety Code committee of the NFPA and a variety of building code committees, sees important change coming in the life safety codes themselves. In his view, it is important to build safety systems into venues. “I think we are going to see a requirement for sprinklers in smaller venues — and we are probably going to see any grandfathering clauses go away for the older venues,” Conner says. “I do think that within the code organizations people will take their time, be thoughtful, and not rush to judgment. That is different from legislators who are going to try to act in a day on pure emotion and headlines.”
Dealing with the Aftermath
The days immediately after the fire did bring emotionally charged reactions from some local governments, who stopped all pyrotechnics in their jurisdictions, but most of these temporary bans have now been lifted. The industry itself has seen mostly positive changes, says Kahn: “We had a couple of people wanting to return orders and a few customers cancelled. Things slowed down for about a week. Most customers are still using pyro but are getting more educated about the regulations. We see them being a lot more conscious of the regulations and being careful to comply with them properly.” Segeren feels that education is essential to the future of the industry. “Le Maitre has always tried to be proactive; all of our dealers are going to face mandatory training. We are also looking to train our high-volume users, then we'll move to the secondary level. We want to spread the useful knowledge we have.” Kahn agrees: “We're getting more questions and are making it easier to supply this information. The information on the website and e-mails to our customer list have dealt more with regulations and keeping people up-to-date.”
Local fire marshals are making sure that knowledge is acquired and put into strict practice. “Fire departments are asking for a lot more information than ever before,” says Segeren. “Mostly, it's the smaller shows that have to adjust; the larger shows have always covered all the bases.” Adams says the change in the fire marshals' reviews is noticeable: “I worked at the Grammy Awards this year and there was a marked increase in the number of fire marshals. Companies that had gotten complacent are going to have real problems from here on out. That's as it should be, because you can never, ever take pyrotechnics for granted. There has to be the utmost caution at all times.”
“I would hope that when something tragic like this occurs you come away from it with a lesson learned,” reflects Lauve. “Probably the best memorial to those that did lose their lives would be a greater attention to the existing rules and an eye towards improving one's own operations.” While the move to better regulation, national licensing, and more stringent enforcement of the codes is very welcome, Conner worries about human nature. “Even with permitting and licensing you are always going to have the problem of people that ignore the rules or break them.” The APA encourages venues to take the lead in safety by ensuring all staff members are advised of the intended use of indoor pyrotechnics in the facility and designate appropriately trained staff to be responsible for executing the facility's emergency response and evacuation plans. It's common sense advice to which 120 club patrons in Minneapolis, MN, owe their lives. A few days before the Rhode Island fire, the same scenario played with very different results. A fire broke out at the Fine Line Music Club when a Seattle band used pyrotechnics onstage. The stunt resulted in an estimated $1.5 million in damages but, because of the club's strict training and well executed evacuation plan, the staff and all the patrons escaped unharmed. Safety, as always, proves to be everyone's responsibility.
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