by Paul D. Lehrman
The fire at The Station nightclub in Rhode Island was the worst music-related disaster in New England in over 60 years. One hundred people died, including one member of Great White, the heavy metal band performing that night, and nearly 200 more were injured. To many older folks, it was horribly reminiscent of the Coconut Grove fire in downtown Boston in 1942, in which almost 500 people lost their lives. That event resulted in a lot of changes in the safety codes for public buildings: Emergency lights, exit lights and public postings of room capacities were henceforth required. Furthermore, exit doors were no longer allowed to be locked from the inside. Though today it seems absurd to even consider doing that, reportedly that was the usual policy at the club.
You've no doubt seen the astonishing video of the beginnings of the fire, which was shot by a local news station. The video clearly shows sparks from a set of pyrotechnic fountains, or "gerbs," hitting the sound-deadening material on the walls and instantly transforming them into sheets of flame. The flames shot up the walls in such synchronization it's easy to see how some patrons thought the fire was part of the show and then raced down the low ceiling, away from the stage, engulfing the whole room with extremely toxic, dark smoke.
A fire extinguisher that was supposed to be next to the stage was missing because its wall bracket was broken and nobody had fixed it. There were no sprinklers on the club's ceiling: They weren't required, due to the club's relatively small size, and the fact that the building was old enough to be "grandfathered" when sprinklers became mandated. According to reports, exit doors were painted to be invisible or opened the wrong way (and were removed from their frames and stored in a dressing room when inspectors showed up); exit lights were placed so that they couldn't be seen from the floor; windows were blocked on the inside by pool tables and by other furniture that was supposed to be taken out of the room when the club was used for concerts and blocked on the outside by the band's tour bus; and bouncers in the beginning of the fire tried to keep patrons from fleeing through the stage door.
The whole thing was over in less than two minutes. The band said they had permission to use pyrotechnics in the World War II-vintage wood building; the club owners said that they were never asked.
The lawsuits will be flying for years and will likely be resolved at the expense of those with the deepest pockets Anheuser-Busch, which sponsored the concert, and Clear Channel Communications, one of whose thousands of radio stations "hosted" it and not of the people who made the decisions.
One of the most serious of those decisions, and obviously a serious one for the owner of any facility studio, performance space or rehearsal room was the choice of acoustic foam. Put up in response to complaints by neighbors and insisted on by the local government before they would renew the club's license, the owners used, according to the Providence Journal, "the lowest grade, the cheapest stuff": 2.5-inch-thick packing foam, with no flame-retardant characteristics. An independent forensic specialist determined that the foam's combustibility was equivalent to 13 gallons of gasoline. Buying safer foam, according to one local reporter, would have cost the club a whopping additional $600. (The foam's manufacturer is also named in the lawsuits.)
And that is, unfortunately, the same situation that many music facilities find themselves in: how to acoustically treat the walls of rooms in which sound is important without turning them into firetraps.
Nick Colleran is one of the industry's most well-informed voices on this subject. A former studio owner he was one of the founders of Alpha Audio in Richmond, Va. and one-time president of SPARS, Colleran has been in the acoustic-treatment business for almost 25 years: Alpha Audio, besides being a successful multiroom facility far larger than you'd think its market would support, was also for many years the American audio distributor of Sonex's line of acoustic foam. Today, he runs Acoustics First, which manufactures and distributes a wide variety of acoustical materials to the media-production market and to the building trades in general. After the Rhode Island fire, he fielded a barrage of calls from national and regional news services.
"As soon as I saw that video of the fire, I knew it couldn't be any kind of acoustic foam: It went up way too fast. They went and insisted on buying the cheapest foam they could find: packing foam. Bedding and packing foam are not supposed to be interior finish material."
But even genuine acoustic foam comes in different fire-resistant grades. There are three grades A, B and C (sometimes, confusingly enough, called I, II and III) that specify how far a flame will spread over a material's surface in a set amount of time. "None of the stuff will burst into flame," says Colleran. "But if a building is already burning, the grading will tell you how much this will contribute to the fire and perhaps make it worse."
Polyurethane foam is the cheapest and, consequently, the most popular material for acoustic treatments. "The best urethane foam is only Class-C," says Colleran. "A typical urethane foam will go out when you remove the flame. In a home studio, you can use it, as long as you don't use voluminous quantities and you have a way out. Generally, it's not illegal, but it can cause real problems if the house burns down."
But flame retardation isn't the whole story. There's often an inverse relationship between flammability and the amount of smoke a material gives off. Colleran explains, "When you treat something for flame spread, it often increases the smoke output. The smoke is toxic; it's cyanide. You'll be dead before the flames reach you." There are similar trade-offs when it comes to making materials water-resistant: "Some waterproofings are incredibly flammable," he says.
Another factor is the type of building you work in. "Materials that will pass code on the floor may not pass on the wall. In a fire, they will get more oxygen on the wall, and even more if they're in a corner," says Colleran. "If the studio is in a home or a single-story, single-use building, that's one thing, but if you're in a high-rise in the city, you have to worry about vertical updraft. Remember the old carpet on the walls at [Miami's] Criteria Studios? That would never pass code today."
It's also important to recognize that sound-deadening and soundproofing are not the same, a distinction that may have been lost on The Stations' owners, who installed the foam largely in response to neighbors' complaints. (Ironically, the person who sold the foam to the club was one of those neighbors.) "We have people who want to put urethane foam into churches, day-care centers and nursing homes, and we won't sell it to them," says Colleran. "Not only is it unsafe, but they think it's going to block sound, which is not what it does.
"Unfortunately, the materials that have the best fire ratings are often more costly to make. This is due to both raw material cost and the difficulty of molding a plastic that has a high melting temperature."
What about some of the more "organic" materials that smaller studios might want to use, like wood shingles and that old standby of garage bands: egg cartons? "Cedar shingles were all over studios in the '70s," says Colleran. "We tested some when we did a project, and acoustically they are wonderful: absorbent and flat. But they go up like gasoline: They're very porous and there's lots of air circulation. We tested some egg cartons at Riverbank Lab, and they're really not bad, acoustically. But as Ray Bradbury reminded us, they go up at 451° Fahrenheit. And then, of course, there's the problem of cholesterol."
Light woods are also used in many modern sound-diffuser systems, but Colleran thinks that studios should consider alternatives: "There are Class-A thermoplastic materials, which won't melt on the firemen. But they're about 50 percent more expensive than cedar or cheaper plastics."
What else does Colleran like for fire-safe materials? Melamine: the stuff your parents' supper dishes were made of. "It's ceramic-based," he says. "You put a flame next to it and it just sort of looks at you." Typically, it's about twice as expensive as urethane. And then there's Fiberglas: "It's made from sand and it just doesn't burn. Most professional installations these days are going with Fiberglas."
Fire marshals are supposed to be able to explain and enforce fire codes, but they sometimes have to deal with moving targets. "There's lots of weasel wording on the fire-safety issue when it comes to materials," says Colleran. "These days, even if a material is specified as Class-A, the fire marshals are saying, ‘We don't trust it; we want to check it out ourselves.’ A lot of fire marshals are you'll pardon the expression on the hot seat because they passed on stuff before that they shouldn't have.
"People need to read which tests materials have passed before they buy them: Are they the relevant ones? Some stuff you can put in your car for sound deadening and that's the test the manufacturers talk about but you can't put it in your studio. Just because someone else is using it doesn't mean it's safe; it just means no one has called 'em on it."
Besides choosing the right materials, installing a sprinkler system and making sure your building passes code, Colleran cites two things that studio and other facility owners can do to prevent a fire: "Watch your cigarettes. And putting huge fuses in a guitar amp because it's heating up isn't a good idea."
And there's one more perspective: How do you prepare yourself for a fire? An expert on that, not by choice, of course, is Rich Goldman, one-time owner of legendary Cincinnati funk palace 5th Floor Recording. In the summer of 1987, a fire broke out on the top floor of the downtown building where Goldman's studio was located. It was a six-story building with an attic, but after the fire was put out, "Our ceiling became the new roof," Goldman recalls.
Nobody was hurt. An engineer spotted the fire early, and Goldman told everybody to, "Grab whatever you can and get out." But most of the equipment, including a Sphere console, MCI 24-track deck and tons of outboard gear, was ruined. "That's what happens when you have hundreds of gallons of filthy water pouring into your control room," he says. Although they were able to salvage some equipment, "Once you have water going through it, will it ever work right?" he asks. "Even if it turns on, the water would certainly shorten its life, and you don't know if you can depend on it."
Goldman is now a partner in Riptide Music, a production company in Marina del Ray, Calif. "We were affected by the Rhode Island fire, too. After it happened, we called a fire meeting and got together with some of our neighbors in the building to talk about emergency plans."
The lessons he learned? "You need the right fire extinguishers. Some of the foam stuff they use is just disastrous for electronic equipment and dissolves it right away. The extinguishers that use powders are not great either, but that stuff is at least cleanable.
"And have a look at your insurance policy. I can't emphasize that enough," Goldman encourages. "We used an adjuster between us and the insurance company. In fact, the adjusters who came to us had handled the Caribou Ranch fire [James Guercio's resort studio in Colorado, which had burned down two years before], so they knew just what to do. They had an information packet on my doorstep the next day. They take something like 10 percent of the settlement, but that's fine. You're in a business negotiation with people who are expert in a business that you're a total novice in. So someone who knows how to work it is worth their weight in gold."
Paul D. Lehrman is a composer, writer, producer and educator. He no longer smokes and uses only virtual guitar amps. Thanks to Michael Hammerschlag (hammernews.com) for his reporting.
Copyright ©2003 by Paul D. Lehrman