Pyro Display Tragedy Has Effects Industry, Event Organizers Feeling the Heat


An indoor pyro display. Courtesy: Concept Fiatlux, Toronto. .

The story is heartbreaking. A nightclub fire in February, sparked by an illegal pyro display, killed 100 and injured nearly 200 clubgoers in West Warwick, R.I., during a performance of the band Great White. The tragedy outraged special event professionals, who decry what they see as a raft of appalling violations of event safety at the Rhode Island club.

SRO's sister publication Special Events recently talked to several live-event professionals about how the the tragedy impacted their industry. Following is an excerpt of that report.

Events on the Edge

Among event planners the reaction is mixed, with some people saying they plan no major changes in upcoming events, including indoor pyro shows.

Go West Event Productions, Westlake Village, Calif., was in Las Vegas prepping for a series of big events, including one with 18ft. propane flames, for a major client when the tragedy hit in February.

“The moment the doors opened and the thousands of attendees began streaming in, several senior management members approached me for reassurance,” notes David Fischette, president/CEO of Go West. “After taking note of our precautions [including specific permits, a defined safety zone, and fire watch personnel], they were set at ease, and the evening went off without a hitch.”

“We have several upcoming events with pyrotechnics in the plans, and we plan to stick with them,” says Craig Leitner, VP of Clear Channel Entertainment Special Events, St. Louis. “Most are outdoors, but I wouldn't hesitate to encourage clients to use indoor pyro. Ninety-nine percent of pyro technicians are solid professionals, and I am certainly confident in the vendors I work with.”

But an equal number say the West Warwick tragedy has changed their event plans.

Greg Jenkins of Bravo Productions, Long Beach, Calif., was planning a gala including outdoor pyro and an Asian “fire dance” show. “After the Rhode Island tragedy, the client immediately axed the pyro, fire dance, and any semblance of a spark or flame,” he recounts. “Regardless of the high reputation of the special effects company, entertainment, and our efforts to ensure safety, the client just couldn't get past the television images [of the nightclub fire].”

Beyond the issue of special effects, however, many industry professionals note an increased concern for safety in general. In March, EventWorks, Los Angeles, was planning an event at the new Hyatt Regency in Huntington Beach. At that time, EventWorks account executive Monica Antola noted, “we've already been told by the hotel that everything must be fireproofed, even thatching used for outdoor bars. Venues are definitely taking a proactive stance to keep event producers informed as to what must be done to ensure fire safety.”

Prohibit Pyro?

Event professionals may find some decisions regarding what they can and can't do during a live show will eventually be made for them as authorities react to the tragedy.

Within days of the Rhode Island tragedy, the mayor of Boston, for instance, outlawed all pyrotechnic displays in the city's nightclubs and launched new safety requirements. The fire also triggered investigations by the National Fire Protection Association, the National Institute of Standards and Technology, and the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA).

In March, the International Association of Fire Chiefs, a trade group, called for a total ban on indoor fireworks and pyrotechnics. “There are too many other things that people in your business can do to make an event festive and fun — air-blast cannons, lasers. Fire is not a toy,” says Jackie Gibbs, head of the Marietta, Ga., Fire Department and chairman of the Fire & Life Safety section of the IAFC.

But several prominent safety consultants reject such a ban.

“I think that's an overreaction to a very tragic incident,” says Jurg (Bill) Mattman, head of Mattman Security Management Consultants, Murrieta, Calif. “Pyrotechnics have become important parts of many entertainment events — concerts, Las Vegas and Broadway type shows, etc., and are carried out in near total safety in many indoor facilities, such as arenas and large theaters.”

While even some within the event industry have slammed the eagerness to swap safety for dramatic impact, Mattman believes such criticism has gone overboard.

“As a rule, I have found event producers and promoters to be very responsible business people. Of course, there are and always will be exceptions,” he says. “We have done hundreds of risk assessments on behalf of title sponsors of various events who wanted to be sure their corporate image would not be tarnished by an incident that most people would consider preventable and avoidable.”

But, he concedes, “that same level of concern probably does not apply to small events, such as those that take place in many nightclubs or facilities not specifically designed for special events.”

However, crowd control consultant Paul Wertheimer, who served on the task force that examined events leading to the deaths of 11 fans killed at a 1979 The Who concert in Cincinnati, thinks the event industry does need to do some tough self-analysis.

“The industry needs to speak out a little better than it has done,” says Werheimer, who heads Chicago-based Crowd Management Strategies. “They've been very defensive, which is the wrong posture to take. They have to distance themselves from the amateur people who are reckless, who to some extent have tarnished the industry.”

He warns that industry professionals sometimes do risk too much in going for the “wow.”

“They're pushing the envelope of safety, and everyone knows it's being pushed, except the audience,” he says. “That's why the people [in West Warwick] hesitated those seconds before they took action,” he says, referring to the fact that many club patrons apparently did not head immediately for exits when the fire broke out, thinking it was possibly part of the show. “You don't know if it's part of the action or not because why would anybody do something reckless? So you stand there and watch it until you realize that [a fire] is the real thing. It's not the first time pyro has confused audiences, particularly rock 'n' roll audiences, who are used to seeing outrageous things.”

Pros Protest

In the eye of the storm is the special effects industry. Several pyro companies report that pyro displays have been cancelled or postponed in recent months, and virtually all of them now claim the pyro-oriented projects they are pursuing are coming under additional scrutiny from planners and regulators.

Most companies say they have not changed procedures since the tragedy. “It truly seems that most people in the know realize that the West Warwick accident involved unlicensed, non-permitted pyrotechnics by non-professional people who blatantly disregarded standard safety practices and procedures,” insists David Spear, CSEP (certified special events professional), head of special effects company Classic Effects in Madisonville, La., and International Special Events Society president.

He does, however, stress more communication with venue management and other production providers — light, sound, display, decor — to make sure everyone knows the location of the pyro operator.

“We have also taken a tougher stance on demanding flame-treatment certifications from venues and decorators who may have materials in the immediate proximity of the pyrotechnics,” he says. “If we have any doubt as to the flame treatment or flame-retardant properties of nearby materials, we are asking the fire marshal or venue to conduct a flame test.”

“The very nature of special effects and stunts is that there is a perceived degree of danger — this is what makes them so exciting and thrilling for people to watch,” adds Pat Ryan, head of Party Planners West, Los Angeles. “It is the responsibility of any person or company that engages, produces, or performs a stunt or a special effect that they utilize the greatest caution, hire consummate professionals, and obey every law.”

“As unfortunate as the tragedy in Rhode Island was,” adds Rob Hulsmeyer, CSEP, senior partner of New York-based Empire Force Events, “hopefully it will push our profession to realize that risk assessment of our events is more important than sponsor placement, floral selection, and so on. It might save some lives.”

In an upcoming issue, we will offer advice from event experts on how to ensure safety when working with special effects.


Lisa Hurley is editor of Special Events magazine and can be reached at lhurley@primediabusiness.com.


Resources

For recommendations on the safe use of indoor pyrotechnics, visit the American Pyrotechnics Association site at www.americanpyro.com or call 301-907-8181. For free access to the National Fire Protection Association's “NFPA 1126: Standard for the Use of Pyrotechnics Before a Proximate Audience,” visit www.nfpa.org or call 800-344-3555 or 617-770-3000.