Guest Column - March 2013
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Design Corner

Stadium Safety
Designing for Fire Safety in Major Stadiums

By Lee Coates

It's been called "codifying by catastrophe"—how fire and other safety regulations have often come about because of tragedy, although the United States has mercifully been spared the kind of stadium disaster seen in other parts of the world.

In America, the worst tragedy happened at the Riverside Coliseum in Cincinnati at a 1979 Who concert, where 11 fans died in a crush. A similar pile-up in New York at a basketball game saw nine killed in 1991.

The worst verified stadium disaster was in South America, at the close of a Peru vs. Argentina Olympic qualifying football match in 1964. Crowd chaos ensued when the referee disallowed a Peru goal, with 318 people going on to lose their lives.

Nowadays, major stadiums have crowd safety as their first design prerequisite—from entrances and exits that can cope with large numbers of patrons to major incident plans to deal with any eventuality.

Although crushing injuries have historically been the most common cause of fatality, fire is another potent threat. It's the reason modern stadiums are built with lots of concrete, steel and fire-rated glass to minimize the risks posed by fire.

But fire safety has also come about because of tragedy—most notably the worst fire disaster in the history of English football: the Bradford City fire in 1985, which killed 56 and injured some 265. Most likely caused by a dropped cigarette or match falling into a void area beneath one of the ground's stands, it soon engulfed the whole structure, including the roof. Worse, people had to break down locked exits to escape.

While modern stadiums are very safe, fires do still occur, and not all stadium fires are accidental. In 2011 in Portugal, angry Sporting Lisbon supporters, upset by their team's loss to rivals Benfica, tried to set fire to the stadium. Firefighters extinguished the blaze, but not without significant damage to one section of the stadium.

Developed countries now have specific laws and regulations relating to fire in major stadiums. These regulations require stadium operators to plan, organize, control, monitor and review the necessary preventive and protective measures and, in most cases, record these arrangements in writing.

In particular, preventive measures such as the removal of sources of ignition, the provision of fire doors and the adoption of sensible precautions, especially where food is being prepared, can greatly reduce fire risk.

These passive measures are the international specialism at Wrightstyle, which supplied to both the London Olympic main stadium and the adjacent ArcelorMittal Orbit, the 115-meter-high observation tower. The company also supplied to an Athens Olympic project and to projects for the Asian Games and the FIFA World Cup in South Africa.

In many instances, it has been the ability to demonstrate independent testing against both fire and smoke that has proved a decisive factor, underlining the highly specialized nature and international context of the steel glazing market.

The main lesson for designers is not simply to build in passive and active fire systems, but to look at the whole stadium or building's capacity to withstand a fire. For the glazed components, that should mean analyzing the level of containment the glass will provide and its compatibility with its framing systems.

Those levels of containment are absolutely vital in a stadium, with very large numbers of people in a restricted area and who, in the event of a fire, may not always follow proper evacuation procedures. Evacuation models, based on engineering and computational tools, don't necessarily reflect the variable nature of human reaction.

Computer modeling and human behavior diverge the moment that the fire alarm sounds. The fire safety designers may assume that patrons will immediately head for a designated fire exit. However, human psychology is likely to delay any response because many people will assume it's a false alarm, or wait for further instruction from someone in a position of authority.