The story was heartbreaking. A nightclub fire on Feb. 20 — sparked by an illegal pyro display — killed 99 and injured nearly 200 club-goers in West Warwick, R.I.
The tragedy has outraged special event professionals, who decry what they see as a raft of appalling violations of event safety. Although the pyro ignited flammable soundproofing behind the stage, so could “a careless cigarette, an electrical fire or a hot light bulb,” notes David Spear, CSEP, head of special effects company Classic Effects in Mandeville, La., and ISES president. “The building … was an accident waiting to happen.”
The West Warwick tragedy has sent a shudder through the special event industry. Special Events Magazine has interviewed more than 50 event professionals to see what the aftermath has been and how the industry is moving forward.
EVENTS ON EDGE
Among event planners, the reaction is mixed, with many saying that their events are going on — including indoor pyro — exactly as planned.
Go West Event Productions was in Las Vegas prepping for a series of big events, one including 18-foot propane flames, for a major client when the tragedy hit. “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 the Westlake Village, Calif.-based company. “After taking note of our precautions” — which included permitting, a defined safety zone and fire watch personnel — “they were set at ease, and the evening went off without a hitch or incident.”
“We have several upcoming events with pyrotechnics in the plans, and we plan to stick with them,” notes Craig Leitner, vice president of St. Louis-based Clear Channel Entertainment Special Events. “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 have told Special Events Magazine that the West Warwick tragedy has changed their event plans.
Greg Jenkins, of Long Beach, Calif.-based Bravo Productions, had planned a gala including outdoor pyro and an Asian “fire dance” show. But “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. Jenkins plans to use a recorded videotape of a pyrotechnics show displayed on two screens. “And luckily, we proposed using liquid-activated light instead of candles in our initial proposal, which greatly relieved the client.”
Beyond the issue of special effects, other planners note an increased concern for safety in general. As Los Angeles-based EventWorks was planning in March for an event at the new Hyatt in Huntington Beach, Calif., “we've already been told by the hotel that everything must be fireproofed, even thatching used for outdoor bars,” notes account executive Monica Antola. “Venues are definitely taking a proactive stance to keep event producers informed as to what must be done to ensure fire safety.”
Event professionals may find that some decisions will be taken out of their hands as authorities react to the tragedy.
Within days of the fire, the mayor of Boston outlawed all pyrotechnic displays in the city's nightclubs and launched new safety requirements. The fire has triggered investigations by the National Fire Protection Association, the National Institute of Standards and Technology, and the Occupational Safety & Health Administration. In March, the International Association of Fire Chiefs, a trade group, called for a total ban on indoor fireworks and pyrotechnics. Jackie Gibbs, head of the Marietta (Ga.) Fire Department and chairman of the Fire & Life Safety section of the IAFC, tells Special Events Magazine, “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.”
But several prominent safety consultants reject an outright ban.
“I think that's an overreaction to a very tragic incident,” says Jurg (Bill) Mattman, head of Mattman Security Management Consultants in 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 industry's willingness to swap safety for dramatic impact, Mattman believes such criticism is misplaced. “As a rule, I have found event producers and promoters to be very responsible business people [although], 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 that their corporate image would not be tarnished by an incident that most people would consider preventable and avoidable.” But he cautions, “The 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 studying the deaths of 11 fans in 1979 at a concert by The Who in Cincinnati, thinks the event industry — the special effects segment in particular — needs to take a hard look at itself. “The industry needs to speak out a little better than it has done,” says the head of 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, and who to some extent have tarnished the industry.”
He warns that special event professionals risk too much when 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, explaining why many patrons did not head immediately for the exits. “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 [a fire] until you realize that it's the real thing. It's not the first time pyro has confused audiences — particularly rock-and-roll audiences, who are used to seeing outrageous things going on.”
PROTEST FROM PROS
In the eye of the firestorm is the special effects industry. Several pyro companies have reported that pyro displays have been cancelled or postponed, and all tell Special Events Magazine that pyro projects are now 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 nonprofessional people who blatantly disregarded standard safety practices and procedures,” Spear says.
He is, however, stressing extra communication with venue management and other production providers — light, sound, 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.”
Ray Brazeau, president of StarLite Pyrotechnics, Toronto, had embarked on an education program only three weeks before the Rhode Island fire, warning of the dangers of pyro in the wrong hands. He will address the ISES Toronto Chapter on the subject this month.
“It took only three of the most commonly used and readily available pyrotechnic effects at a cost of less than $30 to take almost 100 lives and devastate so many, many more,” he says. “A Rhode Island [disaster] will happen again, unless we don't allow it to get swept under the rug.”
“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,” notes Pat Ryan, head of Los Angeles-based Party Planners West. “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 Huslmeyer, CSEP, of New York-based Empire Force Events, “hopefully it will push forward our profession to realize that risk assessment of our events is more important than sponsor placement, floral selection and so on. And save some lives in the future.”
In our next installment, effects experts advise planners how to ensure safety with special effects.
Classic Effects, 866/455-5201, www.classiceffects.com; Crowd Management Strategies, 773/525-3269, www.crowdsafe.com; Mattman Security Management Consultants, 909/600-1668, www.jwmattman.com; StarLite Pyrotechnics, 416/691-2039, www.starlitepyrotechnics.com
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, 617/770-3000.