Wrightstyle Looks Back from Curfew to Modern US Fire Safety

Wrightstyle, in the UK steel glazing company, supplies its fire-rated systems internationally.  Jane Embury, the company’s marketing director, looks back on some tragic milestones that have shaped modern US fire and building regulations .  In the USA and Canada, Wrightstyle supplies through Hope’s Windows, Inc. (Jamestown NY), a leading manufacturer of steel and bronze glazing systems.

We tend to think of fire safety as something relatively new; a modern, democratic and enlightened concept that places a value on everybody’s lives.  However, fire regulation has been an issue for much longer – in Europe, back to William the Conqueror in the 11th century.

Back then, the average house was pretty squalid.  It was built from timber, wattle and daub – a lattice of wooden strips covered with a mixture of soil, clay, sand, straw or animal dung.  Roofs were generally thatched, and therefore flammable. 

Inside, there was a central hearth and the floor, as often as not, was covered in straw – also flammable.  Chimneys, as we know them, didn’t exist.  These residential firetraps were generally set side by side in narrow streets, so that if one caught fire, the chances were that others would also catch fire.

To counter this, William the Conqueror decreed that all fires should be extinguished at night, and the most popular method to achieve this was a simple metal lid that covered the fire and put it out.  This lid was called a couvert feu, from which is derived the modern word curfew.

By the 17th century, the same kind of laws that were being enacted in Britain were also being introduced in the USA.  In 1631, for example, in Boston, Massachusetts, the Governor outlawed the building of wooden chimneys and thatched roofs.  This in effect was America’s first building code.

More regulation followed.  In 1648, the Governor of New Amsterdam (New York) created a system of fire wardens, the first fire prevention service in the country.  They had the authority to inspect every home for fire safety – including properly-constructed chimneys – and to impose fines in the event of a negligently caused fire.

Boston continued to lead the way with the first paid firefighters in 1679.  In 1736, the Union Fire Company was set up in Philadelphia by Benjamin Franklin.

Sadly, however, it has been tragic fires that have shaped fire and building regulations, in the United States and around the world.  It’s a process that’s been dubbed "codifying by catastrophe" – being wise after the event, until the next tragic fire comes along.

One of the worst happened in 1871 in Chicago, at a time of rapid population growth.  In October, the "windy city" lived up to its name when a fire – allegedly started by a cow kicking over a lantern – quickly destroyed one-third of Chicago’s buildings, and left some 250 dead.

In the aftermath came new regulations on safer spacing between houses and on construction materials.  Even today, National Fire Prevention Week takes place in the first week of October to mark this grim anniversary.

However, on exactly the same day as the Great Chicago Fire, there was a much worse disaster – the Peshtigo Fire, and the deadliest in US history.  This fire, in Wisconsin and Michigan, fanned by high winds following a period of drought, destroyed over 20 towns and killed more than 1,500 people.  But, being a big city, it was Chicago that grabbed the headlines.

The next year, despite Boston’s reputation nationally as a fire-safe city, came a tragic reality check.  A fire in a warehouse quickly spread and firefighters were unable to respond adequately, having to pull equipment by hand (their horses were ill) and then having to contend with a poor water supply.  Making things worse, warships in the harbor caught fire, setting off gunpowder and other explosives.

In total, some 60 acres of buildings were destroyed.  But once again, from the carnage came new building codes, and a more robust system of building inspection – an important recognition that building codes are pretty worthless if they’re not enforced.

That’s particularly true for buildings in which large numbers of people congregate.  For example, the Iroquois Theater Fire in Chicago in 1903. The play’s scenery caught fire, leading to the deaths of 602 people, the worst single-building fire in US history.  A catalogue of faults emerged – including no fire sprinklers or emergency lighting, and that the stage’s fire curtain didn’t work properly, and couldn’t therefore contain the fire.  Indeed, containment is a lesson repeatedly learned and promptly forgotten in the history of fire safety.

The next major fire to change regulations was in 1904 in Baltimore.  This conflagration burned for over 24 hours and destroyed some 80 city blocks.  Out of it came new regulations on fire hose standard sizes and couplings.

Etched into American history is, of course, the 1906 San Francisco earthquake which killed some 450 people.  What’s sometimes forgotten is that it’s estimated that 90% of the damage to the city was caused by fire.

A handful of years later came a fire that, on paper, rewrote building regulations and advanced understanding of how to deal with fires in tall buildings: the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire in New York in 1911.  The fire in a garment factory claimed 146 lives, and directly led to new laws on building access and egress, fireproofing requirements, the availability of fire extinguishers, and automatic sprinklers.

Two years ago, at precisely 4:45 PM EST, the moment the first fire alarm was sounded in 1911, hundreds of bells rang out in cities and towns across the USA.  For this commemorative act, the Remember the Triangle Fire Coalition organized hundreds of churches, schools, fire houses, and private individuals in the New York City region and across the nation – underlining its significance in the annals of fire history, in the USA and internationally.

Fast forward to 1940 and the Rhythm Club in Natchex, Mississippi.  It was crowded with about 300 patrons, and decorated with highly flammable material.  When fire broke out, it very quickly spread, trapping people inside.  Windows had been boarded up to stop people getting in without paying, and the only exit had doors that opened inwards.  There were 209 fatalities.

Once again came codifying by catastrophe; this time to set standards for the number of fire exits, outward-opening exit doors, and safer interior materials.   (This, despite the fact that one of the first regulations promulgated by the National Fire Protection Association (NFPA) was the 1927 Building Exits Code, supposedly placing exit strategy at the heart of fire safety).

However, fire regulations count for nothing without enforcement.  Two years after the Mississippi fire, it was Boston’s turn again – this time at the Cocoanut Grove nightclub.  A young US soldier wanting some privacy with his girlfriend removed the light bulb on their table but, when it was reconnected by a member of staff who had to light a match to see better, he accidentally set fire to decorative palm fronds, which rapidly led to flashover.

It led to 492 deaths and remains the country’s worst nightclub fire.  Apart from a lack of fire exits and other safety features, the enormous loss of life was greatly exacerbated by fire and toxic fumes spreading unchecked to upper levels of the club.  The Cocoanut Grove was essentially an uncontained atrium, a subject that we have written about – so that when the fire broke out, it was able to spread unhindered throughout the building.  Containment, again.  (Once more, inward-opening exit doors didn’t help).

However, as numerous fires have since demonstrated, providing and enforcing adequate escape routes still remains an issue – most recently in a nightclub fire in Brazil earlier this year, which claimed over 240 lives.  Sadly, the Brazilian disaster was tragically similar to the Station nightclub fire in Rhode Island, New Jersey in 2003 – similarly started by indoor pyrotechnics setting fire to flammable material in the walls and ceiling.

The Rhode Island fire, as with the Brazilian inferno, took hold in minutes and killed 100 people.  A further 230 people were injured.  Once again, exits were flooded with people trying to escape – most ignoring alternative exits to head for the one exit they knew: the entrance at which they had arrived.  (This aspect of human flight psychology has important implications for evacuation strategy).


As with previous tragedies, a contributing factor was that the club was full beyond its authorised capacity.  A National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) investigation found that a sprinkler system would have contained the fire.  The nightclub was supposed to have had one; it didn’t – again, regulation and enforcement out of synch.

Overcrowding should have been sorted out 26 years earlier following the 1977 Beverly Hills Supper Club fire in Southgate, Kentucky, which began from a spark from faulty wiring.  That small and insignificant fault left 165 people dead.  It was found that, as with the Kiss and Station disasters, the venue was hugely overcrowded.  There were some 2,750 people inside, which under Kentucky law required some 28 exits.  The club only had 16 exits.

In addition, not only were many of those exits not clearly marked but, because of the building’s poor design, they could not easily be accessed.  Some exits could only be reached by passing through several different areas.  Many victims were found in dead-end corridors, having become disorientated and lost.

From nightclubs to hotels, another kind of building in which people expect to be safe.  Not so in 1946 at the Winecoff Hotel in Atlanta which left 119 dead – the worst US hotel fire of the 20th century.  The hotel had only recently passed a fire inspection, despite having no fire alarm system, no sprinkler system and no fire escapes – all issues that subsequent code changes addressed.

Or didn’t quite address.  In 1980 came the MGM Grand Hotel fire in Las Vegas, in which 84 people died, many from smoke inhalation – the worst disaster in Nevada history.  While the fire primarily only damaged the second floor, most of the deaths occurred on the upper floors, with elevator shafts and stairwells allowing toxic smoke to spread upwards.  Once again, fire safety regulations had to be rewritten – as at the Cocoanut Grove and elsewhere, it was a lack of containment that allowed fire and gases to spread unchecked.

Containment, or the lack of it, is a recurring theme.  In 1949, a fire at St Anthony’s Hospital in Effingham, Illinois demonstrated – again – that interior materials should be flame-retardant, with effective barriers constructed to contain fire at its source.  As with the Atlanta hotel fire, the hospital had neither fire alarm nor sprinkler systems and, because the facility lacked any form of containment, the fire spread unchecked – killing over 70 people, including 11 newborn babies.

New codes were swiftly introduced for healthcare facilities, dealing with such issues as fire and smoke barriers – the very containment regulations that, had they been in force, would have saved many lives.

But children were again the victims in 1958, at the Our Lady of the Angels School in Chicago.  The school legally complied with municipal and state fire codes and was well-maintained.  However, those codes did not address such issues as fire escapes – the school had only one.  Nor were there fire doors, an automatic fire alarm, heat detectors, or a direct alarm to the fire department.

The Our Lady of the Angels fire cost the lives of 92 children and three teaching staff.  Another 100 were injured, many seriously.  Even the Pope sent his condolences.

After the Our Lady of the Angels School fire, the president of the NFPA said that “there are no new lessons to be learned from this fire; only old lessons that tragically went unheeded.”  Adequate means of escape is still not regulated or enforced in many parts of the world – Bangladeshi garment factories being an obvious example.

Our business at Wrightstyle is the provision of internal and external steel glazing systems – everything from curtain walling to internal screens and doors, and can be found in commercial buildings, railway stations, shopping malls, hotels, leisure facilities, major stadia, and places of worship – including the US Marines Chapel

Our systems are designed to contain fire: to prevent it spreading from its origin and provide protected escape routes for a building’s occupants – for up to 120 minutes, and which is why our systems can be found worldwide, with test accreditation in Europe, the USA and Far East.

All Wrightstyle systems are tested as one compatible unit and, as we always emphasise to architects and designers, based on our extensive fire, ballistic and bomb testing experience, the glass and steel components should always be specified as one integrated and tested assembly.  In a fire, the glass will only be as good as its framing system, or vice versa, and if one fails, both may fail, with potentially catastrophic consequences.

All of us in the fire and building security sector now work interdependently; assessing a whole building’s ability to withstand fire and designing in safety - making sure that, if the worst happens, we have the systems and evacuation procedures in place to contain the fire and get everyone to safety.

We’ve come a long way since William and Conqueror demanded that his subjects placed a couvert feu over their hearth fire.  But, there again, modern principles and practices for fire safety are exactly the same.  But it’s a tragedy that it’s taken so many lost lives along the way.


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