The fundamentals of fire safety for outdoor events with safety expert Chris Hannam

For any outdoor event or festival to run safely, it is essential that there is suitable and sufficient pre-planning on behalf of all stakeholders involved. This should result in the production of an event safety management plan that will include a fire safety plan that also includes fire risk assessments.

In 2006 fire safety law was considerably changed when many old fire safety laws were scrapped and replaced by one simple piece of legislation, the Regulatory Reform (Fire Safety) Order 2005.

This new regulation gave responsibilities to duty holders, which in our case would be site operators and event organisers, including appointing ‘competent persons’ to conduct fire risk assessments, acting on the outcomes of the assessment, appointing and training fire wardens/marshals, providing staff fire safety training and keeping a fire safety log book as part of the assessment process. The penalties are high for non-compliance including fines and imprisonment.

Fire at event
Pic: Getty Images

Competent person?
So let’s start with the assessment that requires a competent person to carry it out – who is a competent person? Well that is for the duty holder to decide but they need to ensure their decision is correct. The Health and Safety Executive has given us the definition assomeone who has sufficient training and experience or knowledge and other qualities that allow them to assist you properly.

The level of competence required will depend on the complexity of the situation and the particular help you need; in this situation it is a person who has had training and is experienced in fire risk assessment. The term competent person crops up regularly in health and safety regulations. For an outdoor site, more than one assessment may be required to include the site itself and then any structures (that will be no smoking areas) on the site. In most cases you will require specialist help with risk assessments.

Fire extinguishers at festivalThe assessment will look at any potential fire hazards including what sources of ignition (heat) may exist, flammable materials and substances, who is at risk, means of raising the alarm, means of escape, emergency assembly points, means of fighting the fire, access for fire fighters, staff training, a site/venue plan etc. The assessment is a very detailed document.

Some of the areas you should consider in your risk assessment are (this list is not exhaustive and in no particular order):

  • Housekeeping and waste management
  • Catering facilities
  • Special hazards posed by concessions, exhibitors or displays
  • Storage
  • Dangerous substances, storage, display and use
  • Equipment and machinery, including generators
  • Fuel and LPG
  • Managing construction assembly and alterations
  • Restricting the spread of fire and smoke
  • Arson
  • Vehicles and vehicle movements
  • Camping, including the use of barbecues or fire pits
  • Fireworks, flying lanterns or similar
  • Additional risks faced by people with special needs
  • Handling and storage
  • Electrical safety
  • Smoking

Perhaps one of the most important factors is occupant capacity; you don’t want an unsafe site due to overcrowding so agreed and acceptable numbers of visitors and staff on site must be strictly adhered to. For instance, in an arena in front of a stage the accepted figure is one person to every half a square meter of space, so 100 square meters will be generally suitable for 200 people, but remember this must be space available after the footprint of any structures and infrastructure etc. has been deducted.

Emergency exit signEmergency Exits
As escape routes and emergency exits must be clearly signed (with signs to the approved standard of BS:5499) and kept clear, they need to be adequate for the number of people likely to use them. You will first need to consider the largest number of people, including staff, public and contractors that may be present at any one time. For some events the maximum number of people likely to be present will be known, e.g. where the event is ticketed or limited by seating. A suitable limit is required for your fire Fire point signrisk assessment or licensing application.

The exit capacity of an event can be worked out using the formula below. You will need to ensure that you have sufficient available exits for the number of public on site to leave safely should a fire occur. Designated Emergency Access Gates do not count as available exits. You should also discount one available exit from the calculation to account for the fact that the emergency situation occurring may block an exit or otherwise restrict its use. The minimum width of an exit should be 1.05m.

Exit Capacity = Number of people
                     Flow Rate x Escape Time

Emergency assembly pointThe current recommendation for escape time from outdoor events is between 5 and 10 minutes depending on the level of risk involved. The given flow rates are 73 people per meter per minute for open air seated areas and 109 people per meter per minute otherwise.

For example, to find the exit capacity of a low risk, non seated outdoor event site with 5,000 visitors:

Exit capacity = 5,000
109 x 10

Exit capacity = 4.58m

For 5,000 visitors, 4.58m exit width must be available, excluding emergency exits.

The minimum width of an exit should be 1.05m so, in this case, five minimum width exits would be required (totalling 5.25m) or three minimum width exits (totalling 3.15m) and one larger exit of 1.43m.

A further exit should be provided in case one exit becomes inaccessible due to the emergency occurring. This must be large enough to ensure that, whichever of the original exits is taken out, the exit capacity for the event is still met.

The occupant capacity for an event is either the occupant density for the event or the amount of people that can safely leave the event site given the available exits using the exit capacity formula given above. The smaller of these two numbers will be the occupant capacity.

You must ensure that your site is not overcrowded and that adequate means of escape to a safe area exists. For a large site it may not be possible or desirable to evacuate the whole site but it must be possible to move visitors to a safe area; a large site may have taken a few days to fill so a full evacuation may take almost as long!

There must be adequate fire exits, 750mm is the minimum width of an escape route or door. When calculating the overall capacity, if a room or site has two or more exits it has to be assumed that a fire will prevent the occupants from using one of them. The remaining useable exit(s) need to be wide enough to allow all occupants to leave quickly.

One very common cause of fire is faulty electrical equipment; electrical safety was covered in my previous article for this magazine so I will not cover this again here as space does not exist.

The only safe fuel on site is diesel, petrol should not be allowed and all cars should be parked separately from tents, ie. no camping in car parks and no cars in camping areas.

The grass on the site should be mowed just before the event and the scalping’s removed. Stubble fields do not make suitable car parks or camping areas.

All fabrics used on stages, structures, marquees, catering units and market stalls must have certification to show they are inherently flame retardant to British or European Standards. Market traders, caterers and hire companies must provide these certificates together with fire risk assessments and any required fire extinguishers they may need for their units (in the case of market stalls and catering units).

Extinguishing fire
In order to understand how fire extinguishers work, you first need to know a little bit about fire.

Four things must be present at the same time in order to produce fire:

  • Enough oxygen to sustain combustion
  • Enough heat to raise the material to its ignition temperature
  • Some sort of fuel or combustible material, and
  • The chemical, exothermic reaction that is fire.

Fire triangle

Take a look at the Fire Triangle diagram. Oxygen, heat and fuel are frequently referred to as the fire triangle. Add in the fourth element, the chemical reaction, and you actually have a fire tetrahedron. The important thing to remember is: take any of these four things away, and you will not have a fire or the fire will be extinguished. Essentially, fire extinguishers put out fire by taking away one or more elements of the fire triangle/tetrahedron.

Fire safety, at its most basic, is based upon the principle of keeping fuel sources and ignition sources separate. For a campsite, the spread of fire can be reduced by creating fire lanes (at least 3m wide) between tents at regular intervals that will also allow access for the fire and rescue service appliances.

When carrying out a site fire risk assessment for an outdoor event consider the width and weight of emergency vehicles. A fire appliance is a very heavy vehicle usually weighing over 14 tons and needs adequate solid roadways to gain access to within 50m of any part of an outdoor event site. This means clear access roads and gateways of a minimum 4m in width with adequate turning spaces and no overhead obstructions. A dedicated emergency route for the emergency services to gain access to a site is often a condition of a Premises License and always a good plan.

Fire lanes at a festival
This picture clearly demonstrates fire lanes between tents at a major festival.

Raising the alarm
The next issue is how to raise the alarm in case of fire; this is not so easy on a large outdoor site but just shouting “Fire” does have good results. It is highly likely that the emergency services are first contacted by a member of the public with a mobile phone, your advance planning and contingency plans should cover this eventuality. At most events there will be stewards with radios that should call Event Control who will make a call to the emergency services.

Stewards with radios can be stationed on fire towers to watch for fires and other problems. Fire Points can also be located at fire towers; a means for raising the alarm needs to be provided at unmanned fire points, this can be a manually operated bell or gong.

Fire extinguishers
Different types of fire will require different extinguishers; a water extinguisher may be very dangerous on an electrical fire for instance.

All extinguishers are now red with a coloured flash to show their contents.

  • Red = Water
  • Blue = Dry Powder
  • Cream = Foam
  • Yellow = Wet Chemical
  • Black = Carbon Dioxide

Water and foam are the two most popular extinguishers, CO2 is ideal on electrical systems and on and around stages, dry powder is ideal on generator fires, while catering units may require wet chemical Extinguisher chartextinguishers.

So that concludes our very brief look at basic fire safety. Unfortunately space does not permit me to cover basic fire safety training that employers must provide for all employees together with additional training for those appointed as fire wardens/marshals and stewards. That I hope will be the subject of a later article in this magazine.

Chris Hannam runs Stagesafe, offering health and safety consultancy and training for the live music and event production industries. With over 35 years’ experience he advises event organisers, production and tour managers, promoters, freelancers, service companies and businesses at every level on all H&S documentation, site planning, crowd management, CDM compliance, steward safety training, contractor safety management and more.

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