Earlier this year, Stage Directions magazine suggested that I write a 1000-word “How-To” and “Safety” article on flame effects. As I didn’t want to be even indirectly responsible for a rash of theatre fires, the article was light on “How-To” and heavy on “Safety” with a strong flavor of “Don’t try this at home.” Here’s the article as originally submitted. See the June-2002 Stage Directions magazine for the final version. The published version should include a short directory of flame effect vendors.
Safe Flame – Fire on Stage or Stage on Fire?
BY Daniel Birket
Birket Engineering, Inc., May 2002
If you’re thinking of using real flame in your next show, my advice is: think again. The regulatory and financial barriers are daunting and the added realism of an open flame is seldom worth its very real risks.
There is a good reason why you rarely see flame on stage except at big-budget “permanent” productions in New York, Las Vegas, and high-end theme parks. The history books of theater are scarred by horror stories of fires. Most fire marshals and other safety professionals won’t even say “flame” and “theater” in the same breath – if not because of the risks, then because it’s much easier to just say “no” than to go the extra mile required to make it safe.
Since you’re still reading, we’ll assume that the many theatrical flame substitutes available do not satisfy your needs and you must have real flame. In this rare case, here’s how to begin:
First, prepare to do some heavy reading. Get a copy of NFPA 101® – Code for Safety to Life from Fire in Buildings and Structures from the library or directly from the National Fire Protection Association, International®(www.nfpa.org). This book is likely to govern the regulatory decision to permit or prohibit your flame effect application. You’ll need it for an introduction to the vocabulary of fire safety and to simply get a feel for what you’re getting yourself into.
If your production is outdoors, you’ll have a little more latitude by sidestepping many of the building issues covered by this code, but “public assembly” and “structure” still covers a lot. The risk to the building is not the primary concern – the safety of the audience, cast, and crew is. Outdoor flame effects also bring their own problems, including how to cope with wind. The Buccaneer Bay outdoor stunt show at the Treasure Island at the Mirage® casino in Las Vegas, for example, has many thousand dollars in weather monitoring equipment alone.
Next, pay a visit to your friendly neighborhood AHJ or Authority Having Jurisdiction. This may be the county fire marshal, or a state, county, or local building, health, occupational, fire, or even electrical inspector. An insurance company’s inspector can also veto your plans. It’s very important to establish a good relationship with your AHJ from the beginning. They can stop you before you start, or worse, pull the plug after you’ve invested time and money in your flame effect. A communicative inspector is a jewel as they have considerable room for interpretation of the codes and standards. In many cases, exception and waiver is the only possible path to regulatory approval.
If your AHJ hasn’t said “no” immediately, next get NFPA 160 – Standard for Flame Effects Before an Audience. If you’re considering pyrotechnics too, you’ll want NFPA 1126 – Standard for the Use of Pyrotechnics before a Proximate Audience. They were developed by a broad range of experts specifically for the needs of the theatrical and themed entertainment professions. These are standards, not codes. A standard details how to design and operate your effect to get and keep a “yes” from your AHJ. The code gives your AHJ ways to say “no”.
If you’re unlucky, you may discover that your local AHJ hasn’t yet adopted the two special effect standards published by the NFPA Technical Committee on Special Effects since 1994. In this case, you may be faced with an inspector accustom to enforcing compliance with an older code like NFPA 85 – Boiler and Combustion Systems Hazards Code.This can become surreal: “Take me to your boiler.”
Both of the special effect standards are mercifully short and readable. In NFPA 160, you’ll find a list of requirements for approval, including the contents of the written Flame Effect Plan, a mention of the Flame Effect Demonstration, Fire Hazard Analysis, plus safety test documents, technical drawings, manuals and operating procedures – all possibly required prior to approval. However, the details of what you’ll need are almost entirely up to your AHJ. Thankfully, the designer of your flame effects can provide much of this pile of paperwork.
Another significant requirement is the Flame Effect Operator. This person is held responsible for all aspects of the flame effect, including maintenance, testing, pre, post, rehearsal, and emergency operation, fuel management, and supervision of any assistants. The operator must be at least 21 and may be required to have additional licenses or training required by the AHJ. (For example, the Clark County (Las Vegas) Fire Dept. requires flame effect operators to have a current pyro-technician’s license.) You’ll need Standby Fire Safety Personnel armed with supplemental fire-fighting equipment too. With even the smallest flames, a cool-headed crewmember standing in the wings with a ready fire extinguisher is a minimum precaution to avert disaster.
The standard discusses seven classes of flame effects. Manual operation is permitted for the simplest group (matches, cigarette lighters, candles, and small handheld torches with extinguisher caps) provided its operator attends the effect continuously. All other types require an automatic flame-safety control system to manage the flame and its fuel. Most installations use either natural gas or propane because gas-fueled flames can be cut off instantly in an emergency.
The more complex classes of effects have an interface between your show-control system and the dedicated flame-safety control system. The most stringent requirements apply to flame effects that operate in close proximity to cast, crew, or audience. For example, the flame effects at EFX Alive in the MGM Grand Hotel®, Las Vegas include two fire-breathing dragons and a ring of fire surrounding an actress. The flame-safety control system monitors every flame and fuel valve in detail and synchronizes and interlocks their operation with dozens of other effects, sound, lighting, and rigging.
Among the technical details in the balance of the standard is a requirement for an emergency stop system that can instantly shut down all flame effects. Other requirements cover safe isolation of fuel, ignition supervision, safety interlocks, atmospheric monitoring, and flame resistant materials. Did you know that absolutely nothing on the set of the Backdraft® attraction at Universal Studios Hollywood® is actually flammable? The entire set is an ingeniously ventilated fireproof enclosure and even the “paper” props on the set are actually painted aluminum sheets.
Even including the helpful information in the appendixes of NFPA 160, it remains a standard for minimum requirements, not a how-to manual. You’re still going to want the help of a company with experience in flame effects. Unexpectedly, the NFPA 160 standard can help here again, as the listing of the members of the NFPA Technical Committee on Special Effects is a Who’s-Who of experts in this very specialized field. A few calls to this group will quickly connect you to people that can turn your burning vision into safely functioning hardware.
Daniel Birket is a member of the NFPA Technical Committee on Special Effects and the Vice President of Birket Engineering, Inc., which specializes in the safe control of themed entertainment rides and shows and theatrical effects. Birket projects include: Buccaneer Bay at Treasure Island at the Mirage®, and EFX Alive at the MGM Grand Hotel®, Las Vegas, Backdraft® and Waterworld® at Universal Studios Hollywood®, and Illuminations 2000: Reflections of Earth, at Walt Disney World’s EPCOT®.