Having held a pyrotechnician license for five years, here are the real goods on indoor pyrotechnical effects.
1: You must have a permit from the local fire department. No permit? No pyro. In Canada, you can’t even order indoor effects charges (pyro) without a special indoor endorsement on your license and a license for each place you plan to let them off. You can’t get the license without the local fire department being intimately involved in all aspects of the show. If the local fire department doesn’t like the look of you, or the venue, licenses be dammed, you ain’t getting a permit.
2. You must demonstrate the current possession of a $1,000,000 PLPD insurance policy for each venue. Not a group rider, an individual policy per venue. No insurance? No pyro.
3. Most indoor, small scale effects charges are what are called ‘cold’ charges, meaning mostly black powder and aluminum: Very little phosphorus or magnesium in the composition. Each charge is designed to burn bright but fast and extinguish before the hot parts can hit the floor.
Most are flash-bangs, which are small black powder charges with some aluminum powder to provide the flash, but not a lot of heat or smoke. The charge must go high-order very quickly and dissipate even faster. Fountain streams (or falls), like were used in Rhode Island are specially composited for each granule to light and go out in a very short period of time, gravity providing the illusion of a waterfall of sparkles. The specification of the effect charge tells you very clearly how far the flammable components will fall. The manufacturers test the hell out of them, then add a few more feet for safety.
4. The default rule is always NO. If you (as the technician) are even the slightest bit unsure about the safety, the answer is NO Fire. All small-scale indoor effect charges are dangerous, but can’t cause any ruckus if you don’t light them off. Can a careless technician cause a fire? Certainly, but your training is always drummed into you that NO is the default.
5: Indoor effects charges using pyrotechnical materials can almost all be duplicated by mechanical effects. For instance, a flash-bang can be simulated by compressed air and a single-shot high intensity strobe. Its called a burp-can and makes, essentially, a very loud, compressed air burp and triggers a strobe with a hellacious light at the same time. No smoke, no flame, no permit needed, but the same effect as a flash-bang.
Smoke wafting across the stage? I can rent five different kinds of smoke generators that plug into the wall, like a hair dryer and atomize chemical smoke across an element that produces clouds of thick smoke for Deep Purple cover bands.
Pillars of Flames of Hell? A fan on its back and silk streamers that are attached to the fan that blow upwards. A couple of lights on the silk, some red and orange gels in the lights and you have a very real looking pillar of flame. The Stones used it on Voodoo Lounge, rather than a full propane powered flame generator. Even works as a medieval torch on the wall of the haunted castle, just some silk, some lights and some electricity.
The simple end to this is: Someone messed up big time. I saw the footage this morning at 0530 and it was obvious there were no safety people with extinguishers in hand standing by. Training says that you must have someone ready to put the effect out if something goes wrong. Training says you don’t fire the effect if there is a potential for something to go wrong, or someone is out of place.
Two good CO2 extinguisher shots on that backdrop would have put it out almost instantly or suppressed it enough that the club could have been evacuated without the astounding loss of life that resulted.
Other deeply concerning things that have been mentioned. No sprinklers. This is just not good in the year 2003 for any commercial building, especially one that hosts many people in a crowded area. No emergency lights? Shoot, that’s just stupid. Adding to those outrages, I’d bet their were probably only three exits in the whole place and one was most likely chained shut.
Where the hell was the Fire Department inspection? Fire Departments in most states and provinces have the authority to enter any public facility at any time to look for safety violations and to shut them down until things are fixed. Expect to see Fire Departments across the continent step up their inspections of bars, night clubs, social clubs and party halls. This is as it should be and any club owner who cries too much about ‘its costing me too much to put in those emergency lights’ should be invited to go into another line of business. This is also why some cities have anti-rave ordinances. Not for the drug use, really, but for the complete lack of any kind of safety for the patrons in the event of fire.
Damn shame those people in Rhode Island had to burn to death and those others in Chicago had to be trampled to death. But if there is little or no inspection, or inspection without teeth, then there are always those who will cut corners to the point of the unimaginable happening in their clubs.