- Safety - Haunted Houses and the Fire Marshall

Haunted Houses and the Fire Marshall
by Jim Williams

As a fan of Halloween activities and a visitor to many a Haunted House, the entrepreneurs and designers of Haunted Attractions have my respect and admiration. The amount of time and effort that goes into the design, fabrication, set-up and operation of these attractions is astounding. However, as a Fire Marshal, my primary concern is Life Safety, and when this is overlooked, all that time and effort is wasted on a closed attraction, or worse, injuries from an unsafe one. The goal for all of us should be that no one gets hurt.

For starters, I recommend that you run through various worst-case scenarios with your staff. How will your staff react if there is a fire or medical emergency? Would they know what to do? Have you trained them? Have you provided the safety equipment needed? Is the equipment readily available? Of course we are all hopeful that nothing will happen, and we take a big sigh of relief at the end of the season when everything went as planned and no one was injured. However, we won't have to hold our breath until that sigh of relief if we know that you are ready for an emergency and your properly trained staff know what to do.

As a Haunted House operator, you cannot have the mindset that "nothing has ever happened before, so it's fine." You must ask yourself what you can do to prevent or mitigate an emergency or unplanned event. Preparation, pre-planning and training are the first steps in eliminating deadly risks that can and do occur. They are also the first steps in having a Haunted House plan reviewed by the Fire Marshal.

Prior to construction, take your plans to the "Authority Having Jurisdiction" (AHJ) of the city or county in which the Haunted House is to operate. Ascertain if permits or plan reviews will be required by the jurisdiction; if so, be sure to maintain a window of time to get this done. Permits and plan reviews are normally a scheduled activity. You will need to learn the application process, deadlines, and whether any fees are required up front. A meeting with the Building Official, Fire Marshal and Electrical Inspector regarding requirements prior to the plan submittal could save you a lot of time and frustration. Many jurisdictions have special requirements for Haunted Houses, so be sure to ask for a copy.

The Code
Knowing the building and fire codes is also part of preparation, pre-planning and training. The code is developed to keep people safe and mitigate emergencies; using the code as a guide while constructing your Haunted House can remove many risks.

There are several different codes in existence; Uniform Fire Code (UFC), Southern Building Code (SBC), Building Officials and Code Administration (BOCA), International Fire Code (IFC), and National Fire Protection Association (NFPA) are just a few, and many jurisdictions have even written their own codes concerning Haunted Houses. However, the mission and focus of each of these is the same; to save lives. The majority of codes were written after someone died during an incident, and it was said that something should be done to prevent future occurrences. Most codes include or reference a section of NFPA 101, which is the Life Safety Code. A Haunted House is an Assembly Occupancy, which falls under the definition of "Building, Special Amusement".

NFPA 101
A building that is temporary, permanent, or mobile that contains a device or system that conveys passengers or provides a walkway along, around or over a course in any direction as a form of amusement arranged so that the egress path is not readily apparent due to visual or audio distractions or an intentionally confounded egress path, or is not readily available due to mode of conveyance through the building or structure.

NFPA 101 A (annex)
Such structures include amusements such as haunted house, a roller coaster type ride within a building, a multilevel play structure within a building, a submarine ride, and similar amusements where the occupants are not in the open air.

Requirements for Haunted Houses are covered in section (13.1.1) Assembly Occupancies and section (13.4.7) Special Amusement Buildings. The minimum requirements for assembly occupancies as per NFPA 101:

* Use and occupancy of 50 persons or more at one time defines assembly occupancy. * Customers in waiting areas or lobby shall not interfere with egress paths of occupants in the Haunted House. A separate egress area shall be maintained. * Occupancy is usually based on 1 person for each 15 square foot of floor space in a concentrated area. (Fire Marshal can set a maximum occupancy). * Occupancy in a lobby area or queue line is usually based on 1 person for 7 square feet. * An entrance or waiting area is usually based on 1 person for 3 square feet. * No smoking or open flames. * No open flame/No pyrotechnics/No Propane/No class II or greater lasers. * Employees shall be trained and drilled in their responsibilities for fire, panic or other emergency to effect orderly exiting. * Employees shall be trained in the use/operation of portable fire extinguishers and other fire suppression equipment available. * Emergency lighting to activate during interruption of normal lighting, power failure, circuit breaker tripped etc. Light to illuminate egress path not less than 1 ft candle at any point for up to 1.5 hours * Portable fire extinguishers, minimum size of 2A10BC, for every 3000 gross square foot and no more than 75 feet of travel distance between extinguishers. * A licensed electrician should perform all electrical work with a permit from the jurisdiction. * No gasoline or combustion engines may be stored or used inside the building. * And others that may apply!

We find that while reviewing assembly occupancies, the previously discussed section on Special Amusement Building also applies. The following are mandated requirements for a Haunted House dictated by NFPA Life Safety 101, which has jurisdiction in most states: * Protected throughout by an automatic sprinkler system. * Reduced lighting areas require protection of an automatic smoke detection system in all occupied areas, common areas, and workspaces. Conflicting/confusing sounds or visuals to cease/stop upon activation of the smoke alarm.* Exits shall be marked by illuminated signage. Floor Proximity Exit Signs that are internally illuminated shall be installed within 8 inches of the floor and shall illuminate the egress travel path and shall be continuous, except for doorways. The system shall be operating continuously or at any time the fire alarm system is activated.* Where mazes and mirrors or other designs are in place to confound the egress path, directional exit markings shall be provided (Exit signs with arrows on them).* Interior finishes shall have a Class A flame spread throughout.* No hay, straw or other combustible decorations are allowed within the structure.

The Permit Process
In most cases, a building permit will be required before construction can begin, and a certificate of occupancy will be required before the attraction can be opened to the public. Drawings of the Haunted House will be required, showing entrances/exits, electrical switches, circuit breakers, layout of the visitor path, location of alarm systems and manual pull stations, and the locations of fire extinguishers and telephones.

Alternatives and Options
While I am in agreement with the requirements of Life Safety Code 101 to prevent the loss of life and property and I encourage all Haunted House operators to follow its requirements in the spirit of Life Safety, I do understand that many Haunted Houses are constructed and operated for 20 days or less during the Halloween season. As a result, the operators renting or borrowing a building to raise money for a community service organization would have a difficult time constructing a fully compliant facility for temporary use.

One option is to work closely with your building and fire officials to develop a proposal that will create a safe event without the full expense required of a permanent installation. Submit the safety plan to the authority having jurisdiction to explain how your organization plans on going above and beyond many of the code requirements and request that other requirements be waved. For instance, if a sprinkled building is not available, what can be done to still provide a safe Haunted House and limit the risk? The following are some recommendations that I would make in this proposal. * Limit the number of visitors to escorted groups of a fixed amount, e.g. every group has 15 visitors with an escort, regardless of the age of the group. * An escort or guide, 18 yrs or older, will be provided for each group. * Each escort is carrying a working flashlight. * Escorts or supervising employees throughout the Haunted House with flashlights monitoring for problems and acting as fire watch. * Provide extremely detailed emergency plans that describe in detail how your staff will react in all kinds of emergencies. * Limit the number of groups at one time to be half the allowed occupancy capacity of the building/egress. * Utilize no dead-end corridors or pathway options in the layout. * Provide laminated copies of the Haunted House diagram for the local Fire Department. * Describe how no cardboard or paper products, plastic sheeting, etc. is used. Focus on the use of sheetrock, Masonite, or protected plywood. * Paint shall be water based or flame retardant. * Provide employees with two-way radios for emergency notifications. * Smoke alarms will be installed every twenty feet. * One person can operate all sound and lighting from a single location. Describe that during an emergency this person will turn off any sound devices and turn on lighting. * Describe how extension cords will be kept to a minimum and that only commercial grade UL approved grounded extension cords will be used (minimum of 14 gauge &endash; 15 amp). * Provide exiting so that patrons are never more than fifty feet away from an exit.

Explain each point fully and accurately! Remember this proposal will be reviewed not only by a governing body, but also by the Fire Marshal. If a review board approves your event based on conditions, be sure to live up to those conditions. Your proposal has asked them to provide a variance to certain provisions of the Life Safety Code based upon actions you said would be provided.

The Fire Marshal can shut your Haunted House event down if there is a Life Safety Violation. Failing to comply can be costly, and in some communities a criminal arrest may follow, resulting in fines, costs, and possibly jail. In addition, your credibility for next year has just diminished.

The Location
You should keep the applicable codes in mind while determining the location for your Haunted House. Factors such as how many customers can/will be in the Haunted House at a time should be considered in relation to the square footage of the space. If you already have a site, will it comply with the requirements? Here are some questions to ask yourself when you are evaluating potential locations:

* Will there be adequate parking with accessible fire lanes at all times? * Will the building have sufficient vehicle access and egress routes? * Does the building have a fire protection system? * Does the building have a smoke detection system? * Does the building have an audible/visual alarm system? * Does the building have fire extinguishers? * Does the building have maintained and operating emergency lighting? * Does the building meet your needs, with what you want to do? * Does the building have proper egress routes? * Does the building meet Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) requirements? SAFETY FIRST
While you would like to entertain others by building and hosting a Haunted House, you must not forget that Life Safety is always first. Fatal fires have occurred in Haunting Houses due to the lack of knowledge and failure to comply with proper codes. It is our goal to make sure that the two following tragedies will never be repeated.

On October 27, 1973 at the Washington Reid Elementary School located in Prince William County, Virginia, the PTA had created a Haunted House in one of the elementary school classrooms for a Halloween Carnival. They used eight-foot high panels of flannel cloth secured by three-inch wood strips to create the Haunt, and the flannel panels were sprayed with black lacquer-based paint. Brown construction paper was taped over the windows and flannel panels that were in front of the windows to reduce light.

Black lights were installed throughout the Haunted House using temporary wiring. Thirty minutes prior to opening the maze, power was supplied to test the black lights, at which time one of the panels burst into flames. Two parents began to tear down the paper while three others went for fire extinguishers. A manual pull station was pulled by a parent; however the alarm sounded only at the school. Another parent broke into the Principal's office to gain access to call the fire department. One parent was killed and two others were injured just minutes before 200 elementary children were scheduled to enter the maze.

Eight persons perished May 11, 1984 in the Haunted Castle located at the Six Flags Great Adventure Park in New Jersey due to the inability to immediately exit the structure. The structure was comprised of 17 joined commercial trailers attached by plywood. The interior consisted of plywood partitions that resulted in a 450 ft. long path without exit. The fire was caused when a patron using a cigarette lighter to see his way in the dark bumped into a sharp wall corner padded with polyurethane foam. Additional flammable materials in the structure were synthetic foam, various fabrics, plastics and tarpaper, which combined to allow the fire to develop quickly and move aggressively.

Both of these fires could have been avoided. The use of combustible furnishings, the lack of fire protection, the lack of early detection and the lack of readily available egress routes were directly responsible for the loss of life.

Information provided thanks to the National Fire Protection Association (NFPA)

Contrary to popular belief, the Fire Marshal is not trying to keep you from holding a Haunted House. His primary concern is for the Life Safety of your patrons, your staff and you! It is important to work with the building and fire officials who have jurisdiction over your location to ensure that your attraction complies to a satisfactory level of safety. If variances to the codes are needed, be prepared with a plan that will satisfy the desire of all involved to create a safe attraction.

The Fire Marshal will look closely at your operational plans and training; you and your employees must display proper preparation and the capacity to mitigate emergencies. Knowing the building and fire codes, pre-planning for all eventualities and training your staff on how to react to emergencies will remove many risks associated with Haunted Attractions.


NFPA 101, 2000 edition
NFPA resource library

Jim Williams is a Certified Fire Inspector by the State of Michigan and the National Fire Protection Association and is currently the Fire Marshal for the Texas Charter Township Fire Department in Kalamazoo, Michigan.