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When Fire Safety Fails: Complex Doors And Theater Fires

Aug 7, 2008
A fireproof door and an arc light were the culprits in one of history's greatest cautionary tale about fire safety: the Iroquois Theater Fire. There are more famous stories about fires, true: Mrs. O'Leary's Cow comes to mind, as well as the Triangle Shirtwaist fire in New York. But there isn't another story that goes in such detail into how, exactly, measures of fire safety and fire control can be present and up to code, and yet fail so spectacularly--and tragically.

In 1903, the Iroquois Theater in Chicago Illinois was state-of-the-art when it came to fire safety. There was an automatic asbestos fire blanket that descended over the stage, high-tech fire doors imported from France, backup exits in the rear of the theater for actors and staff, and a column of glittering fire escapes running down the walls. True, the fire escape ladders were still under construction--but with all the other fire safety equipment in place, how important could fire escapes be?

Unfortunately, some 1,900 theater-goers found out when an arc light exploded and ignited the entire backstage. Things started to go wrong when the asbestos curtain protecting the audience from the stage jammed halfway down, allowing the fire to spread. One of the performers tried to calm the crowd while the actors and staff tried to escape through the rear fire door--which, due to the freezing Chicago weather, formed into a monstrous fireball that tore through the building, causing more problems than it solved. The theater's wood facade, beautiful as it was, only allowed the fire to spread more quickly. And adding to the problem, theater owners usually locked the front doors from the theater to the lobby during shows. No one could get out using the special fire exits--but the regular exits were also cut off.

The biggest problem, though, were the state-of-the-art fireproof doors. The doors were outfitted with bascule locks, considered to be one of the strongest and most reliable lock technologies on the market at the time. The only problem? No one knew how to open the locks! The fireproof doors prevented the fire from spreading, yes--but they also kept the people from leaving. The result: one the greatest fire-related tragedies in American history.

The moral? Never trust even the most perfect fire safety plan until it's been tested in practice. And never make your fire safety equipment more complicated than the people who, in a crisis, are going to have to use it.
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Fire safety need not be complicated. www.FireProtectionOnline.co.uk offers a wealth of information on the latest safety products.
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