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On the Shelf: Fire codes

On December 30, 1903, a fire broke out in the Iroquois Theatre in Chicago, Illinois when a broken arc light ignited a muslin curtain. The theatre burned to the ground and over 600 theatre occupants, more than two-thirds women and children, died of asphyxiation, burns, or trampling. It remains one of the deadliest fires in U.S. history.

The construction manager, W.A. Merriam, had declared the building “absolutely fireproof”, although he had ignored a number of contemporary safety precautions. On the day of the fire, audience demand was so great to attend the ornate new theatre that there were 200 standing attendees; the fire vents were closed; and the theatre doors were locked. Even by the looser standards of the day, the construction company and theatre owners committed flagrant safety violations. According to some reports, the city safety inspectors had been bribed with free theatre tickets to ignore the offenses.

Very soon after the fire, a grand jury indicted five people: theatre owner Will Davis, Iroquois treasurer and assistant manager Thomas J. Noonan, and stage manager James E. Cummings–for manslaughter, and Chicago’s Building Commissioner Williams and Building Inspector Edward Laughlin–for malfeasance. Ultimately, the defense got the judge to dismiss the case by arguing that the city’s fire ordinances were invalid. No one was punished for the deaths of 602 victims.

The only positive outcome from this tragic event was the major overhaul of the city’s fire safety standards. Not only did the city of Chicago tighten its fire code, but other major cities changed their practices almost immediately as well. Shortly after this fire, New York and London made rules to stop locking theatre doors. The doors of the Iroquois had been locked to prevent people from sneaking in the theatre, which was one of the contributory factors to the high death toll. On June 8, 1904, New York introduced new building standards for theatres in response to the Iroquois tragedy. In 1904 the Von DuPrin company developed the panic bar (also called push bar, or crash bar), a version of which is still used today, so that people inside a locked building can now exit in an emergency. Most importantly, fire codes were updated throughout the country. You can find international and local fire codes and related material in the Law Library; some relevant materials are listed below.

Ludlow Fire Hydrant [photo by D. Raupach]

Ludlow Fire Hydrant [photo by D. Raupach]

KFD1581 .A43 A2 1965 Fire Prevention Code for the District of Columbia.

K3674 .I58 International Fire Code.

K3674 .I585 International Fire Code Commentary.

KFN5644 .A4 2002 Fire code and property maintenance code of New York State.

KFM4659 .A1 A3 2003 Michigan.  Michigan Rehabilitation Code for existing buildings, 2003 : incorporating the 2003 edition of the International Existing Building Code.

KFN5644 .A436 A2 2002 New York (State).  Fire Code of New York State.

KF5692 .S57 2008 Slone, Daniel K.  A legal guide to urban and sustainable development for planners, developers, and architects.

K3674 .S76 2010 Stookey, Scott.  Building Code Basics: fire : based on the 2009 International Fire Code.

K3538 .A933 Supplement to the international codes.

KF5701 .A914 2009 Thornburg, Douglas W.  2009 IBC handbook : fire- and life-safety provisions.

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