Firefighter Training, Hazmat

Wrightstyle and Fire Safety in Major Stadiums

A UK steel glazing company has supplied fire-rated systems internationally to several Olympic, FIFA and other major stadiums. In the USA, the company works in partnership with Hope’s Windows, Inc. (Jamestown NY).  Wrightstyle’s technical director Lee Coates reports on fire safety in stadiums.

It’s been called “codifying by catastrophe” — how fire and other safety regulations have often come about because of tragedy, although the USA has mercifully been spared the kind of stadium disaster seen in other parts of the world.

In America, the worst tragedy happened at the Riverside Coliseum, Cincinnati at a 1979 Who concert.  11 fans died in a crush.  A similar pile-up in New York at a basketball game saw nine killed in 1991.

The worst verified stadium disaster was in South America, at the close of a Peru v Argentina Olympic qualifying football match in 1964.  Crowd chaos ensued when the referee disallowed a Peru goal, with 318 people going on to lose their lives.

A worse disaster probably happened in Moscow in 1982 during the Soviet era, and therefore in a period of censorship and secrecy.  It followed a Spartak Moscow football match against Dutch side Haarlem, with an admitted death toll of 66.  Many observers believe the real figure was closer to 350.

Tragedy again involved Argentina in 1968, at a River Plate v Boca Juniors match.  74 people died when fans trying to leave came up against a closed exit and were crushed.

Lessons, however, sometimes need to be learned and relearned many times.  In Guatemala City in 1996, 78 people died during a stampede before a World Cup qualifying match against Costa Rica.

And it’s the same the world over.  The UK’s worst football disaster at Hillsborough claimed the lives of 96 Liverpool fans in 1989, again caused by poor crowd control leading to crushing.  

Or Kathmandu in Nepal when at least 93 people died in 1988 when fleeing a hailstorm, only to be crushed against locked exits.  

In the Middle East, the worst stadium disaster was at the Port Said Stadium last year, following an Egyptian premier league football match between the Al-Masry and Al-Ahly clubs.  In scenes of crowd disorder, at least 79 people died and some 1,000 were injured.

The list goes on and on.  The worst disaster in Africa was the Accra crush in 2001 in which 127 people lost their lives, eclipsing tragedy at Ellis Park in South Africa the same year in which 43 died.  More recently, in 2009, 19 people died at another World Cup qualifying match between Ivory Coast and Malawi.

Nowadays, major stadiums have crowd safety as their first design prerequisite; from entrances and exits that can cope with large numbers of patrons, to major incident plans to deal with any eventuality.  

Although crushing injuries have historically been the most common cause of fatality, fire is the other potent threat.  It’s the reason modern stadiums are built with lots of concrete, steel and fire-rated glass to minimise the risks posed by fire.

But fire safety has also come about because of tragedy, most notably the worst fire disaster in the history of English football: the Bradford City fire in 1985 which killed 56 and injured some 265.  Most likely caused by a dropped cigarette or match falling into a void area beneath one of the ground’s stands, it soon engulfed the whole structure, including the roof.  Worse, people had to break down locked exits to escape.

However, while modern stadiums are very safe, fires do still occur, and not all stadium fires are accidental.  In 2011 in Portugal, angry Sporting Lisbon supporters, upset by their team’s loss to rivals Benfica, tried to set fire to the stadium.  Firefighters extinguished the blaze, but not without significant damage to one section of the stadium.

Developed countries now have specific laws and regulations relating to fire in major stadiums.  These regulations require stadium operators to plan, organise, control, monitor and review the necessary preventive and protective measures and, in most cases, record these arrangements in writing.

In particular, preventive measures such as the removal of sources of ignition, the provision of fire doors and the adoption of sensible precautions, especially where food is being prepared, can greatly reduce fire risk.

It’s those passive measures that is our international specialism at Wrightstyle.  We supplied to both the London Olympic main stadium and the adjacent ArcelorMittal Orbit, the 115 metre high observation tower.  We also supplied to an Athens Olympic project and to projects for the Asian Games and the FIFA World Cup in South Africa.

In many instances, it has been our ability to demonstrate independent testing against both fire and smoke that has proved a decisive factor, underlining the highly-specialist nature and international context of the steel glazing market.

As we constantly point out, the main lesson for designers is not simply to build in passive and active fire systems, but to look at the whole stadium or building’s capacity to withstand a fire.  For the glazed components, that should mean analysing the level of containment the glass will provide and its compatibility with its framing systems.

Those levels of containment are absolutely vital in a stadium, with very large numbers of people in a restricted area and who, in the event of a fire, may not always follow proper evacuation procedures.   Evacuation models, based on engineering and computational tools, don’t necessarily reflect the variable nature of human reaction.

Computer modeling and human behavior diverge the moment that the fire alarm sounds.  The fire safety designers may assume that patrons will immediately head for a designated fire exit.  However, human psychology is likely to delay any response because many people will assume it’s a false alarm, or wait for further instruction from someone in a position of authority.

Further complicating matters is that people will generally finish what they’re doing.  If they’re on a concourse buying food, they’ll often complete that purchase before deciding whether to evacuate.  The most compelling example of this, although not stadium-related, was during the Kings Cross railway station fire in London in 1987 which killed 31 people.

In that tragedy, many passengers stepped over fire hoses to reach elevators taking them underground for their trains.  That’s what they were at Kings Cross to do, and a seemingly-innocuous fire wasn’t going to stop them.  In the retail sector, research suggests that people would rather first go to the check-out to purchase goods rather than immediately evacuate the building.

More specific to stadiums, patrons will often seek to reunite with family members or friends.  For example, if one family member is away from their seat
when an alarm sounds – perhaps that same patron buying food on a concourse – they will often go back to their seat to find others in their party before making any decision to evacuate.

It adds up to a delayed flight time that the stadium’s design and evacuation procedures must address.  In buildings research, as much as two-thirds of the time it takes people to exit a building after an alarm is start-up time – time wasted in looking for more information, or not taking the alarm seriously.

Stadiums do, of course, have the advantage of having PA systems and a scoreboard on which information can be posted.  However, human psychology is also at work, and the passive fire measures employed in the stadium’s design must also factor in a delayed evacuation response.

That’s why modern steel glazing systems are so important, either for the exterior envelope of the stadium or for internal screens and fire doors.  With advanced glazing systems able to provide up to 120 minutes of protection against the spread of fire, smoke or toxic gases, they have become an integral part of modern stadium design, giving people more than enough time to evacuate and protecting escape routes along the way.  Those escape routes become more significant for the elderly, infirm or disabled who will typically need more time to evacuate.

However, one word of caution.  In many instances, untested combinations of glass and frame are still being specified separately – despite the fact that, in a fire situation, the glass will only be as good as its framing system, and vice versa.  Insisting on tested, and therefore proven, compatibility, and specifying it as a requirement of the tendering process, should be a matter of course.

Stadium design has come a long way in the past few decades, driven by new regulations to deliver a new generation of safer stadiums.  But it’s also a tragedy that it’s taken catastrophe to make it happen.