Halloween has become a big business here in the United States. According to the National Retail Federation survey, 68 percent of Americans said they would celebrate Halloween in 2019, spending more than $8 billion. About 22 percent of them said that visiting a haunted house would be part of their festivities.
That’s good news for haunted house owners and those looking to get into the business. But, many in the fire service have grave concerns about how those attractions will keep their patrons safe. Haunted houses can create some unique safety hazards, which, if not properly mitigated, can result in injury and death if a fire breaks out.
This post will help you understand the fire safety requirements if you are considering opening a new attraction. And, if you already own or operate one, you can use the information here as a checklist to help ensure you are doing everything you should be to keep your patrons safe from fire.
Fire Safety Concerns with Haunted Houses
Most of the regulations on fire safety in haunted houses evolved in the mid-80s after a deadly fire at an amusement park. When patrons entered the Haunted Castle at Six Flags in New Jersey one Spring evening in 1984, they had no idea that a real nightmare was about to unfold – one which claimed the lives of eight teenagers trapped inside and injured seven others who were able to make their way through the convoluted 450-foot long path to the exit. The investigation that followed revealed that the Haunted Castle was a tragedy waiting to happen – the structure and displays were built with highly combustible materials, and there were no smoke detectors or sprinklers anywhere.
More than 30 years later, the Haunted Castle serves as a powerful cautionary tale, underscoring the importance of ensuring your attraction meets all the fire safety requirements to keep your patrons safe. It is important to note that fire codes apply to any haunted house in which the public is invited to visit whether you are charging an admission fee or not.
The fire safety regulations for haunted houses are designed to address one or more of the following concerns:
- Extra Fuel Loads – In the typical haunted house, a large variety of materials are needed to build its displays, many of which can be highly combustible and can contribute to a heavy fuel load in the event of a fire.
- Smoke detection and fire suppression – Most haunted house owners follow the rules, getting the necessary permits, and ensuring they have complied with all the regulations. However, smoke detectors and sprinkler systems that meet all applicable regulations are a particular concern with makeshift haunted houses that have been constructed hastily without any involvement of the local fire department.
- Egress – All the visual and auditory distractions in the typical haunted house can obscure the path to egress. How patrons traverse the path through a haunted house can also be a concern. Some attractions contain mazes or other paths through them to intentionally confuse their patrons, while others use a train ride that can potentially hamper their escape.
- Fire Service Access – First responders need to be able to get to people in the event of a fire. This concern applies to the exterior of your attraction as well as its layout within. If the fire lanes around the structure are not large enough for emergency vehicles or if the floor plan of your attraction is highly complex and/or not designed for easy access, rescue efforts can be hampered.
A Summary of the Fire Code Regulations for Haunted Houses
The regulations pertaining to haunted houses are found in the National Fire Protection Association (NFPA) 101 Life Safety Code, which has been adopted by every state in the country. The requirements in this post come from the 2018 edition.
NFPA 101 considers haunted houses a “special amusement building,” which is defined in Section 188.8.131.52 as any temporary, permanent, or mobile structure that “contains a device or system that conveys passengers or provides a walkway along, around, or over a course in any direction as a form of amusement arranged so that the egress path is not readily apparent due to visual or audio distractions or an intentionally confounded egress path, or is not readily available due to the mode of conveyance through the building or structure.”
It is important to note that the size of your attraction doesn’t matter when it comes to meeting fire safety requirements. Special amusement buildings are regulated as an assembly occupancy. And, while the definition of an assembly occupancy is generally applied to buildings with gatherings of 50 people or more, this definition in NFPA 101 specifically includes special amusement buildings, whether your attraction can accommodate an occupant load (the maximum number of people in the structure at any given time) of 10 or 100.
The following list summarizes the relevant requirements for haunted houses. While most local fire codes are based on NFPA requirements, your community may have additional requirements. Therefore, it is important to contact your local authority having jurisdiction (AHJ) (usually your local fire department) to inquire what permits are needed and if there are additional requirements that apply in your area.
- Automatic sprinklers are required for all haunted houses. If your haunted house is movable or portable, your sprinkler system can be connected to a temporary water supply. Otherwise, whether temporary or permanent, it must be connected to a permanent water supply (NFPA 101, Sections 12.4.8 and 13.4.8).
- Smoke detectors are required in haunted houses that operate with reduced lighting. They must be connected to an alarm system at a location on the premises that is continuously attended (NFPA 101, Sections 12.4.8 and 13.4.8).
- The fire alarm system must be capable of 1) increasing the illumination of signs indicating means of egress, and 2) immediately terminating any other sounds and visual displays that might confuse the people within the structure or obscure their escape routes (NFPA 101, Sections 12.4.8 and 13.4.8).
- Dead end pathways are not allowed in haunted houses (NFPA 101, Section 7.5.1). In addition, all haunted houses are required to have exit markings and floor proximity exit signs to indicate means of egress. In attractions where the egress path is not readily apparent, additional directional exit marking is required (NFPA 101, Sections 12.4.8 and 13.4.8).
- Materials used to finish the interior walls and ceiling must be certified Class A materials in accordance with ASTM E84 or ANSU/UL 723 standards. Class A certification means that the surface burning characteristics provide the lowest flame spread and smoke development currently available in building materials.
- Curtains or draperies may not be placed over exit doors or be located in any way that they obscure any means of egress (NFPA 101, Section 7.5.2). In addition, all furnishings and decorations must be flame retardant in accordance with NFPA 701 Standard Methods of Fire Tests for Flame Propagation of Textiles and Films (NFPA 101, Section 10.3.1).
- The required width of the means of egress from the structure is based on its occupant load. The main entrance, measured from its narrowest point, must be capable of accommodating two-thirds of the total occupancy load at one time, and any additional exits must be wide enough to accommodate one-half of the total occupant load (NFPA 101, Sections 12.2.3 and 13.2.3). These requirements apply to each floor of the structure. If your haunted house occupies more than one floor, you will find that there are additional requirements pertaining to the design of stairways.
- Emergency Action Plans are required for all new and existing haunted houses (NFPA 101, Sections 12.7.13 and 13.7.13). Among other things, these plans must include an evacuation plan and describe how occupants and staff should respond in the event of an emergency, the procedures for reporting an emergency, and any other items that may be required by the AHJ (NFPA 101, Section 4.8.2).
- Prior to each opening of the attraction, the owner must inspect all means of egress to ensure that it is free of any obstructions and remove them if found. The owner must keep a written record of these inspections, noting any issues identified and the actions taken to correct them (NFPA 101, Sections 12.7.1 and 13.7.1).
- The restrictions on the use of open flame devices and pyrotechnic special effects are very specific and can be found in NFPA 101, Section 12.7.3. These regulations also cite additional requirements – NFPA 1126 Standard for the Use of Pyrotechnics Before a Proximate Audience and NFPA 160 Standard for the Use of Flame Effects Before an audience. The simplest and, of course, safest approach is to assume they are not allowed. If you do intend to incorporate these elements into your attraction, they must be approved by the AHJ (NFPA 101, Sections 12.7.3 and 13.7.3).
Begin Working with Your Local Fire Department Early
Putting up a makeshift haunted house will not only introduce you to enormous liabilities but will likely get you shut down before you can even open the doors. If you are considering opening a haunted house this Halloween, whether for charity or as a business, it is essential to get the fire department or AHJ involved early in the planning process. And, the earlier, the better. Remember that due to the seasonal nature of haunted house attractions, you can reasonably expect that there will be many organizations requesting permits in a short time frame. Planning ahead will help you avoid costly delays.
When it comes to designing the fire safety system for your attraction, you can trust Koorsen Fire and Security with your investment. Our certified technicians, engineers, and knowledgeable sales staff can design and install a system that meets all local and national fire codes and regulations and ensure that your people are properly trained on all required fire safety products. Contact Koorsen today for a free hazard analysis of your haunted house attraction.