Interior Finish and the Benefits of Sprinklers

February 20, 2023 will be the 20th anniversary of the Station Nightclub fire. On February 20, 2003, a fire started by pyrotechnics at the Station Nightclub in West Warwick, Rhode Island, killed one hundred people. To this day, the Station Nightclub fire is one of the deadliest fires in our nation’s history. Fire investigators and video evidence from the night of the fire concluded that foam soundproofing used as interior finish contributed significantly to the fire spread and loss of life. The fire led to several changes to model building and fire codes over the years following.

Human Behavior, Sprinklers, and the Model Codes

Several significant changes to model building and fire codes occurred because of the Station Nightclub fire. Some of the significant changes included:

  • Requiring existing assembly occupancies with an occupant load of three hundred or more to be protected with fire sprinklers.
  • A requirement for the main exit/entrance to accommodate a minimum of 50% of the calculated occupant load for the space. This change occurred because the investigation concluded that human behavior led occupants to exit through the same door they entered when secondary exits may have been closer and more easily accessible.

Research has been done in the years following the fire to try to evaluate human behavior in a fire. If we can better understand human behavior, specifically how occupants respond in a panic situation, code changes may be able to address these concerns, with the goal of saving more lives.

Interior Finish and Foam Plastics

Studies after the Station Nightclub fire also indicated that the primary method used for determining code compliance in the model codes specific to foam plastic interior finish was lacking because it often produced false or misleading results.

ASTM E84 is the primary test to which interior finish is evaluated to in model building and fire codes. Products, when evaluated to ASTM E84, are assigned a Class A, B or C rating, with Class A being the best (the slowest amount of fire spread during the test). We know some foam products have achieved a Class A fire rating in the ASTM E84 test. However, the Class A rating is often misleading because we know foam plastics burn quickly when exposed to flame because they are a petroleum-based product.

Further testing indicated the foam plastic materials would often melt inside the test chamber when exposed to heat/flame, leaving no foam left to burn at the ceiling of the test chamber. For this reason, building and fire codes today require foam plastics when not covered with a thermal barrier to comply with NFPA 286 (the “Room Corner Test”) or ASTM E84 and one an additional test (see 2021 IBC Section 2603.9). In other words, compliance with ASTM E84 alone, is no longer an option in the model codes for foam plastic materials.

When applying the interior finish requirements from model building and fire codes, you will find that the presence of an automatic sprinkler system in the building will grant a one class reduction (Class A to Class B or Class B to Class C, for example) in the interior finish rating, depending on where it is installed in the building (rooms, corridors, exit stairways, etc.). You will find all the criteria outlined in Table 803.3 of the International Building Code and International Fire Code. This reduction is permitted because testing done by NIST, and other organizations have validated that the presence of fire sprinklers significantly enhances life safety and property protection for occupants and building owners.

National Institute for Standards and Technology (NIST) Testing

After the Station Nightclub fire, the National Institute for Standards and Technology (NIST) conducted testing to determine what impact fire sprinklers would have had if the building had been protected by an automatic sprinkler system. It is important to point out that NIST used the same foam material in their tests that was present on the walls of the Station Nightclub the night of the fire.

Videos from the NIST tests can be viewed here:

Foam plastic test WITHOUT sprinklers:

Foam plastic test WITH sprinklers:

The results of the tests done by NIST showed that if the Station Nightclub would have been protected by an automatic sprinkler system, the outcome would have been quite different.

Benefits of NFSA membership

NFSA staff work closely in the codes and standards development process through NFPA and the International Code Council touting the benefits of fire sprinklers in the built environment. Our team of experts stay on the forefront of fire protection issues. For more information on NFSA’s mission to protect lives and property through the widespread acceptance of the fire sprinkler concept, to learn more about the benefits of NFSA membership, or to join our association, please visit our membership page to learn more.