Wrightstyle and Cinema Fire Safety in North America

Wrightstyle Limited is an international steel and aluminium glazing company, designing and manufacturing systems to mitigate against fire, bomb/blast and ballistic attack.  Jimmy Chiu is the company’s Business Development Manager and here looks back the history of fire safety in today’s cinemas.  In the USA and Canada, Wrightstyle supplies through Hope’s Windows, Inc. (Jamestown NY), a leading manufacturer of steel and bronze glazing systems.

In June last year, one of the most historic cinemas in the UK was evacuated when fire broke out in the building’s kitchen.  The Electric Cinema in London’s Portobello Road, which bills itself as the oldest cinema in the city, suffered only minor damage – and without casualties, despite more than 200 people being inside at the time of the blaze.

The Grade II Listed building, which opened in 1910, had undergone major refurbishment in 2001 and reopened at the end of last year.  It underlines how modern fire and building regulations are able to contain fire and ensure rapid evacuation in an emergency situation.

But the history of fire safety in cinemas and theatres has been haphazard at best, with patchwork regulation and inadequate enforcement.

In a sense, inadequate regulation was inevitable, as the cinema was a phenomenon that took the world by storm in only a few years.  Although the real history of film only started in the 1880s, by 1907 there were some 4,000 “nickelodeon” cinemas in the USA. 

London’s first cinema, the Kineopticon, was destroyed by fire shortly after its opening in 1896.  This wasn’t the only cinema fire in those early years, as many films were shown in temporary venues such as music halls or converted shops.

Back then, film was made from highly flammable cellulose nitrate which, under bright lights, could quickly become unsafe – and projection booth fires were relatively common, like the one dramatized in the film Cinema Paradiso.   

 

In the UK, the government stepped in and enacted the 1909 Cinematograph Act which, for example, said that the projector had to be enclosed within a fire-resistant enclosure.  Stricter building regulations were also introduced, and local authorities were given powers of inspection.  What made nitrate stock so dangerous was that, once on fire, it was virtually impossible to extinguish – nitrate generates its own oxygen, and it will even burn under water.

Despite legislation, the dangers were underlined in 1929 when 71 children were killed in the Glen Cinema fire in Paisley, Scotland.  It could have been much worse as, according to contemporary reports, there were over 1,000 people in the auditorium.  Once again, it was the nitrocellulose film that was to blame.

 

Memorial to the Glen Cinema victims

Film goers – mainly children – clamoured to the exits, only to find that they either only opened inwards or had been padlocked shut to prevent unauthorised entry.  It remains the worst cinema disaster in UK history.  Worse, the cinema has been inspected that same day by the local fire service, and pronounced safe.

Paisley Town Council gave bereaved parents a week’s holiday by the seaside, and the 1909 Act was rewritten to regulate again on the numbers of fire exits, outward opening doors, and such issues as cinema capacity – all issues that previous theatre and music hall legislation should have addressed.

But children had also been the victims two years earlier in Montreal at the Laurier Palace Cinema, which killed 77 youngsters.  A minor fire, perhaps caused by a discarded cigarette, caused panic and chaos.  Many died by crushing injury, further underlining the inadequacy of exit strategies in public places.

Uniquely, Quebec then prohibited children under sixteen from entering cinemas – a prohibition that was only lifted in 1967.

The nitrate problem didn’t end with changes in film technology.  In the USA, the country’s National Archives and Records Administration and George Eastman House both suffered enormous loss in 1978 – over three hundred original Eastman negatives were destroyed, and millions of feet of newsreel at the national archive.

Sometimes, however, regulations can be difficult to enforce – such as the 1994 Dream City adult cinema fire in Clerkenwell, London.  Because of strict laws on pornography, the cinema was operating illegally.  The venue had not therefore been subject to a fire inspection.

The fire was started deliberately by a disgruntled patron who used petrol to set fire to the entrance.  Eight people died at the scene, and three others in hospital later.  The perpetrator later received a life sentence.

Cinema tragedy is of course a worldwide issue.  For example the Uphaar Cinema fire in Delhi, India in 1997.  This was caused by the failure of an electricity transformer.  In total, 59 people died.  The exits were dimly marked and many of the exit doors were locked.

More tragically, was the Cinema Rex fire in Abadan, Iran in 1978.  Almost certainly set deliberately – either by anti-government militants or government agents – it killed over 400 people, including a number who were later tried and executed, perhaps falsely.  It became a key event leading to the Iranian revolution of that year.

In 2007, the Washington Post said that the fire was “the second worst deadliest attack in modern history” – second only to 9/11.  (That fact has since been overshadowed by the 2007 Kahtaniva bombings in Iraq which killed nearly 800 people).

Of course, the cinema is in some ways only a variation of the theatre, the only form of mass entertainment on offer before the magic of the moving picture came along.  The regulations that should have applied to theatres and music halls should have also applied to cinemas.  But regulation and enforcement, such is the history of fire safety, aren’t always two sides of the same coin.

 

The Iroquois tragedy

A key event was the Iroquois Theatre fire in Chicago in 1903.  More than 600 people died, the worst theatre fire in US history.   Exits were blocked off, other exits were confusing, the auditorium was hopelessly overcrowded – and, again, many exits opened inward.  (Bob Hope later starred in a film of the fire).

It led, of course, to the reformation of fire codes, with many theatres closed for safety refurbishments – and not just in the USA.  The repercussions of the fire spread around many parts of the world, including a requirement for outward opening doors – a frequently ignored refrain in the litany of fire tragedy and disaster, as in the Paisley tragedy.

The Iroquois fire eclipsed the New York Brooklyn Theater Fire of 1876, which claimed the lives of at least 278 people, and perhaps many more.  An obelisk at Fifth Avenue and 25th Street marks one of the main burial sites.  This fire ranks third in the roll call of fires in theatres and other public places – the other being the Cocoanut Grove nightclub fire during WWII.

Most of the Brooklyn fatalities were patrons in the theater’s circle.  In the rush to escape, the only exit stairway became hopelessly overcrowded.  Effectively, their escape route was cut off.

At Wrightstyle, we have many years of designing, fabricating and installing protective glazing systems to mitigate against fire, smoke and toxic gases.  We have internal and external aluminum and steel glazing systems – doors, screens, and curtain walling – that can provide up to 120 minutes of fire resistance, protecting against fire, radiant heat and smoke.

Our systems have also been tested together as one unit, because in a real fire the glass will only be as protective as its frame, and vice versa.  Specify each component separately, and you run the risk of one failing – and therefore the whole fire protective barrier failing.

The patchwork nature of fire regulation and inadequate enforcement are the key elements that have plagued fire safety in theatres and, later, in cinemas.  Now, at least in many parts of the developed world, we have the building materials, regulations and enforcement regimes to ensure real safety.

www.wrightstyle.co.uk

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