On Saturday, May 28, 1977, a disastrous fire occurred at the Beverly Hills Supper Club in Southgate, Kentucky, which claimed the lives of 165 patrons and employees and injured about 70 others.
When the fire occurred, roughly 2,500 people were at the club with about half in the Cabaret Room. The fire originated in the Zebra Room, a small, unoccupied function room on the opposite end of the club from the Cabaret Room, and burned for a considerable time before it was discovered. The probable cause was determined to be electrical in nature, and combustible material in a concealed space in the ceiling was the first material ignited.
When the fire was discovered, the staff unsuccessfully attempted to fight the fire before notifying the fire department or alerting occupants. Most patrons were evacuated with the assistance of employees; however, by the time the Cabaret Room occupants became aware of the emergency, they did not have adequate time to escape.
The National Fire Protection Association’s investigation found several major factors contributed to the large loss of life in this fire, including:
- The fire in the Zebra Room developed for a considerable time before discovery. The presence of concealed, combustible ceiling tile and wood materials used for supports provided a fuel supply for continued spread of the fire through the original ceiling and other concealed spaces.
- The Beverly Hills Supper Club staff attempted to extinguish the fire before notifying the occupants to leave the building and before calling the fire department. There was no evacuation plan establishing fire emergency procedures for the club, and employees were not schooled or drilled in duties that they were to perform in case of fire.
- The number of people in the Cabaret Room far exceeded the number of occupants that the room could safely accommodate according to codes and standards in effect at the time. Also, the number of occupants in the whole building on the night of the fire was approximately twice the number of people that the building could safely accommodate.
- The interior finish in the main north-south corridor exceeded the flame spread allowed for places of assembly in the Life Safety Code and contributed to the rapid spread of the fire from the Zebra Room to the Cabaret Room.
- The Beverly Hills Supper Club was not provided with automatic sprinkler protection as required by codes in effect in Kentucky at the time of the fire.
Large-loss fires, defined as fires that cause property losses of $10 million dollars or more, cost millions of dollars a year in addition to loss of life. In 2014 alone these types of losses resulted in over $500 million in losses. According to the National Fire Protection Association, large-fire losses have occurred an average of 25 times a year for the last 10 years. Needless to say, the cost in human life and economics are staggering.
Interestingly, while the number of large-fire losses has declined steadily over the last 30-plus years, the cost of these fires has actually gone up. This is partly due to inflation, but also due to larger and more costly buildings being built these days.
There are several factors that contribute to large-fire losses:
- Detection time: The sooner a fire is detected, the sooner the fire department can respond.
- Building construction: Frame buildings burn faster and more easily than masonry-type buildings.
- Building contents: Paper products, chemicals, and flammable liquids inside a building adversely contribute to large-fire losses.
One very good way to reduce large-fire losses is a sprinkler system. Sprinkler systems are designed to activate when a fire starts in a building and either extinguish the fire or control the fire until the fire department arrives. Performing regular maintenance and testing of sprinkler systems is an important part of reducing fire losses.
If your building does not have a sprinkler system or fire alarm, you can still be proactive in preventing fires by:
- Making sure you have an adequate number of fire extinguishers that are inspected annually and that your employees have been trained on proper use of fire extinguishers.
- Having an evacuation plan and making your employees and guests aware of it, which may include practice drills.
- Maintaining good housekeeping practices, including emptying all trash containers at the end of each day.
- Storing flammable liquids in an NFPA-approved flammable storage cabinet.
- Conducting regular inspections of your property to ensure exits are not blocked and are marked appropriately.
There are no shortcuts for fire prevention, so make sure your fire prevention plan is kept up to date.