Historic Fires that Changed Fire Codes

Many commercial fires in the 20th and 21st centuries resulted in great loss of life and drove changes in local or national fire codes. These fires serve as examples to show how tragedy can bring about changes that improve public welfare.


In 1903 the Iroquois Theater Fire in Chicago resulted in the deaths of 602 people. As a result, federal and state codes added requirements for maximum seating capacity, exit signage, exit doors and the inclusion of sprinklers.


The Triangle Shirt Waist Company fire in New York saw the deaths of 146 people, mostly women. Out of the tragedy NFPA 101 (Life Safety Code) was developed. Additional standards around sprinklers and highrise exits were also enacted.


the fire athe the Ohio State Penitentiary caused the deaths of 320 individuals and brought about codes for jails and prisons which were added to the NFPA 101 Life Safety Code.


While not technically a building fire, the fire on board the S S Morro Castle while at sea near New York harbor caused the deaths of 135 people and drew attention to the need for stricter safety standards for sea vessels. Requirements for fire alarms throughout a ship were added to codes.


Two nightclub fires in the early 1940s impacted building and fire codes. The 1940 Rhythm Club fire in  Mississippi killed 209 people and resulted in changes to the required number of exits in night clubs. Shortly after, in 1942, the Cocoanut Grove night club fire in Boston caused the deaths of 492 individuals and drove further additions to the Life Safety code as well as changes to the requirements for suppression systems.


In 1946 a fire at the Winecoff Hotel in Atlanta, GA killed 119 people. Subsequently, requirements for the inclusion of fire suppression and fire alarm systems in hotels were mandated.


The fire at St. Anthony Hospital in Illinois resulted in the loss of 74 lives. Tthis incident drew attention to the need for national codes in hospitals and healthcare facilities.


The deaths of 95 persons, mostly children, in the Our Lady of Angels school fire in Illinois brought about many changes to national school safety standards, including the addition of sprinklers to school buildings.  Among the other changes mandated were requirements for automatic fire alaarms, firewalls and emergency lighting.


Aluminum wiring was banned as a result of the Beverly Hills Supper Club fire in Southgate, KY. The fire caused the deaths of 167 people and also resulted requirments for sprinklers in nightclubs and other places of assembly with a capacity of more than 300.


In the 1980s two hotel and casino fires resulted in changes to codes impacting the hotel and casino industry. After the fire that killed 85 people at the MGM Grand Hotel & Casino in Las Vegas at the beginning of the decade, casinos had to be retrofitted for sprinklers and only Positive Alarm Sequencing (PAS) was allowed in casinos. The 97 deaths as a result of the fire at the Dupont Plaza Hotel & Casino brought about legislation requiring sprinklers U.S. hotels and motels.


A fire erupted at The Station nightclub in Rhode Island as a result of on-stage pyrotechnics. The ensuing conflagration resulted in the tragic deaths of 100 individuals and serious, life-altering injuries to many of those who survived. The fire resulted in the development of new standards governing nightclubs.

Acknowledgement: Assembly Fires, presented by Jim Dolan, NFPA, Sao Paolo, Brazil

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