At least 233 people were killed on Jan. 27 in a fire at Kiss, a nightclub in Santa Maria, Rio Grande do Sul, Brazil. The blaze was allegedly ignited by the pyrotechnics display of Gurizada Fandangueira, a band performing at the club that evening. Could such a tragedy be possible in the United States, a country that loves fireworks so much that we annually celebrate our nation’s birth with them? It’s pretty unlikely, and this is why.
1. How often do pyro accidents happen in America?
The most infamous pyrotechnics disaster of all time happened in 2003 at a Great White concert at The Station in Rhode Island, where 100 people died and hundreds more were injured in what stands as the fourth-deadliest nightclub fire in history. The three nightclub fires with greater body counts — Boston’s Cocoanut Grove in 1942, the Rhythm Club in Natchez, Mississippi, in 1940, and Happy Land in The Bronx in 1990 — were not caused by pyrotechnics. After the disaster at The Station, law makers cracked down on pyrotechnical safety. In the years since, there have been no fatalities and just two minor injuries (to musicians, not audience members) directly connected to pyrotechnics.
2. What are the regulations now?
The pyro industry is very careful about using fireworks indoors. While they can do their best to make sure shows that incorporate fire are as safe as possible, they can’t control individual venues. “There’s not one regulatory agency that governs all of these buildings,” says Julie L. Heckman, Executive Director of the American Pyrotechnics Association. “They can be used in smaller venues, but it gets down to an assessment with fire authorities whether a building is appropriate for indoor pyrotechnics or not.” Local fire departments inspect venues and determine whether they’re fit for pyro, but their judgment is subjective. Federal guidelines are in place which delineate how and where pyrotechnics may be used safely, but they’re not hard-line laws. “Not every location adopts the federal code, but it’s known as a ‘prudent operator’ code,” says Heckman. This is to say that it’s up to club owners to responsibly observe pyrotechnics laws, but since they most likely prefer their buildings intact and patrons alive, almost all of them ban pyro stunts.
3. How are the standards enforced?
The concert industry in the United States is incredibly strict when it comes to using anything remotely resembling a firework indoors. There’s a long and meticulous process for those looking to do pyro stunts. “Laws throughout the U.S. are quite stringent that it needs to be done by professional pyrotechnicians and that inspections by fire professionals and local fire marshals need to occur in regard to pyrotechnics being used, as well as the building or structure that they’re being used within,” says Mira Lacous of Hollywood Pyrotechnics.
4. Who is actually handling the pyro at shows?
The only people running pyrotechnic displays in the U.S. are trained professionals. “Most states will not license someone unless they have significant experience under another professional,” says Lacuos. “[Being] mentored for a long time by a seasoned professional is the only way to keep an audience safe.” One of the major factors contributing to the disaster in Rhode Island was that the fireworks were set off by the band’s touring manager.
5. Does anyone actually use pyro in clubs anymore?
No. The fire at The Station changed everything for indoor pyro, so it is now extremely rare to see it used anywhere outside of arenas and stadiums. A lot of the reason for this comes down to the amount of space and ventilation required for the smoke and heat to dissipate properly. “You need effective airflow to move that away,” says Lacous. “A larger area will easily dissipate the smoke or heat before it becomes an issue.” While small concert halls and venues have a high risk factor when it comes to indoor fire shows, arenas, amphitheaters, and stadiums are relatively safe for spectators at events that utilize indoor pyrotechnics. Pyro is still regularly used at shows on this scale, and has been featured in recent tours by Justin Bieber, Paul McCartney, Coldplay, and Katy Perry.
As with most large venues using indoor pyro these days, New York City’s Madison Square Garden is stringent when it comes to safety precautions surrounding close-proximity pyrotechnics. “We bring in an extremely reliable outside vendor,” says one official in the production department at the Garden. “They’re insured, they have licensed technicians. We always have a pyro test on the day of the show, the fire department is always here.”
6. What else is protecting you from club fires?
Pyrotechnics weren’t the only cause of the São Paulo tragedy — the venue was violating a number of local fire codes. “It’s devastating what happened in Brazil, but we have to look at the fact that they only had one exit and had more than double what the permissible occupancy level,” says Heckman. “Americans are not at the same risk here.” Occupancy levels and the appropriate amount of fire exits for each venue are determined by local fire departments based on how large each room is, and clubs are shut down if they disobey the law. So as long as you’re in a legal show space, you are protected by building codes that ensure that you can make a speedy exit in an emergency.