Keeping Safe

Tom Hayden, supervisor of health and safety inspections, discusses lessons for the GW community from the Brazil nightclub fire tragedy.

February 04, 2013

Last week’s deadly blaze in Brazil is a grim reminder of the hazards of fire, especially in overcrowded, limited access spaces. Of the 235 killed in Brazil, more than 100 were college students.

It would be a mistake to think a tragedy like the one in Brazil couldn’t happen here, said Mr. Hayden. “The scenario is eerily reminiscent of a nightclub fire in the U.S. nearly 10 years ago,” he said. On Feb. 20, 2003, 100 people died at The Station nightclub in Rhode Island. As in Brazil, pyrotechnics were the cause and many of the victims were unable to escape because of overcrowding and limited exits.

What red flags should students and other club goers look for?

“If a club is located above or below street level, stairways can become choke points in an emergency,” he said. Clubs located on a level other than the street level are normally required to be equipped with a sprinkler system. Be concerned if you don’t see one.

Any use of pyrotechnics is a warning sign, said Mr. Hayden.Pyrotechnical displays require special permits, insurance and expertise.” Smaller clubs especially are not designed for these types of shows.

“When you can’t move freely a club—if the entire space is crowded to the point that you have to ‘push through’—then it’s dangerously overcrowded,” said Mr. Hayden.

Clubs in temporary or atypical locations are particularly risky. “Buildings, such as warehouses, for example, that have other uses during normal business hours are often illegal, unregulated and not inspected,” he said. “They may lack even the most fundamental safety features that are required in licensed establishments.”

Mr. Hayden recommended identifying multiple exits. “Most people will want to leave the way they entered,” he said. “In the chaos of an emergency the main entrance can quickly become impassable.”

If an emergency occurs, react immediately. “Quickly move to the nearest exit and keep in mind that it may not be the main exit,” he said. In Brazil and Rhode Island, videos show people initially capturing the fires with smart phones. “Many of these people did not make it out when they realized the seriousness of the situation.”

And, Mr. Hayden said, trust your instincts. “If you don’t feel safe or something doesn’t seem right, find somewhere else to go.”

“Even one red flag should cause you to take a minute to evaluate your safety,” said Mr. Hayden. “If you see two or more red flags, you should seriously consider whether or not you want to be inside the building.”