Rhode Island Nightclub Fire Case Study

Rhode Island Nightclub Fire Case Study

The station nightclub, Rhode Island, was the tragic scene of the fourth deadliest nightclub fire in the history of the United States. This fire happened on February 20, 2003 when a rock band that was having a concert that night used pyrotechnics that ignited the flammable polyurethane soundproofing foam that lined the walls and ceilings which surrounded the stage. The fire spread rapidly from the stage to the ceiling area above the dance floor. The fire filled the club with heavy, choking smoke which overwhelmed even the exit doorways. Within five minutes of the first ignition, flames were observed breaking through the roof. The nightclub’s most familiar outlets were hampered by overcrowding at the building’s main entrance, which was sprinkler free. Many people began to fall and trip while trying to escape. 100 deaths were registered resulting from that deadly fire. Of those deaths, 95 were caused by the inability of the occupants to escape before being overwhelmed by the unsustainable conditions along the exit path (Duval, 2007). The National Fire Protection Association (NFPA, National Institute of Standards and Technology(NIST), local and state agencies conducted investigation to determine the technical causes of the business failure to protect the concert attendants that night. This article will explore the recommendations that were brought forth after the investigations and actions taken to avoid a repeat disaster in the future.

A number of recommendations were brought forth to improve the structural safety of buildings as well as improve emergency response procedures and consequently enhance evacuation. NIST urged local and state jurisdictions to adopt and update the fire codes covering nightclubs with adherence to the revised model codes. The implementation of aggressive and effective fire inspection was also among the suggestions. NIST also urged the jurisdictions to ensure that qualified building examiners and fire inspectors to do the job are on staff to enforce the model codes (William Grosshandler, 2005). Another recommendation was to strengthen the requirements of sprinkler systems installation. NIST also recommended that the safety factor for determining the limits of occupancy for new and existing buildings be increased in accordance to the model codes. NIST also looked at the time needed for occupants to egress and urged local and state jurisdiction to increase the factor of safety in that area. NIST also recommended that flammable polyurethane foam use be restricted- or other materials that easily ignite and spread flames rapidly- as a product for interior finishing (William Grosshandler, 2005). The use of pyrotechnics was also to be further limited and research in specific areas conducted to reinforce the recommended changes.

The recommendation to restrict the use of polyurethane foam recognizes the vital role that the flammable finishing products play in the process of igniting and rapid spreading of flames. In the case of the Rhode Island’s fire, this exposed finish product played a significant role in the spread process (Duval, 2007). It is crucial that material testing be performed by bodies such as the NFPA to ensure that the flammability rate of a building product or finish material correlates with the actual hazard. Even more important is the anticipation of situations that may arise which may be inconsistent with the current building code. Perhaps a better way to enforce this is put markings that are easily identifiable by contractors or regulating authorities to decrease the inappropriate use of such products and materials. The failure to adequately suppress the nightclub’s fire during the initial ignition led to its rapid spread. This led to the NIST recommending the installation of sprinkler systems in building model codes. Use of fire sprinklers lowers the room temperature and prevents fire growth to extreme levels. Had they been installed in the nightclub, enough time would have been provided for the concertgoers to evacuate the building with a sound environment being maintained in the club. An aggressive enforcement of automatic sprinklers for all new and existing clubs with occupancy limits regardless of the size is a provision that should not be underplayed if future fire hazards are to be prevented.


Duval, R. (2007). The Legacy of Nightclub Fires,”. NFPA Journal, 15-23.

William Grosshandler, N. B. (2005). Report of the Technical Investigation of The Station Nightclub Fire. Washington D.C: U.S. government printing office.