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Time to Get Tested

Stephen Ellison • TD Talk • February 1, 2012

Stephen Ellison

Stephen Ellison

For everyone’s safety, let’s bust a few fire curtain myths

Periodically, J.R. Clancy sends out a “Rigging Report” newsletter; you can sign up on their website if you do not get it already. The November edition of this newsletter, written by Eric Mueller, asked the question, “Is your fire safety curtain closed?” This question made me pause, challenging my understanding about fire curtains and how to use them. I did some research, and found a couple of the things I thought I knew about fire curtains were wrong. So let’s talk about the reality of the care and feeding of a fire curtain and dispel some of these myths.

Myth 1: A Braille Fire Curtain (used in theatres without fly space above the stage so the curtain folds as it goes up, instead of hanging straight) has a powder installed in its folds that aids in extinguishing a fire when it is deployed. With the powder always in mind, it would be a big mess if the curtain was tripped by accident.

Wrong. There is no special powder and these curtains can go up and down regularly.

Myth 2: Resetting the fire curtain after it has been tripped requires a rigging company to come out and reset the curtain.

Wrong. Resetting the curtain should not require more than the in-house personnel. (Mostly. This may be different for you based on the age and specifics of your installation. If you’re unsure, find out before you test!)

So with the myths that would have prevented me from testing my fire curtain regularly busted, I set about developing develop a testing plan. To ensure I got it right, I went straight to the source: standards. There are two published standards that cover Fire Safety Curtains, the first is ANSI E1.22 – 2009, “Entertainment Technology – Fire Safety Curtain Systems” adopted on April 21, 2009. The second is NFPA 80, “Standard for Fire Doors and Other Opening Protectives, 2007 Edition.” Both standards are available at their respective organization’s website. As you might expect, there are a lot of similarities between the two.

Both are very specific about how often you should be doing fire curtain testing. According to NFPA 80, section 20.7.1.3, “Emergency operation shall be verified by the owner every 90 days.” Section 20.7.1.4 requires a signed and dated testing report be kept on file for review by the AHJ (Authority Having Jurisdiction), typically the Fire Inspector but not always. The ANSI Standard is a little more stringent: paragraph 12.3 Periodic User Testing states that tests should be performed  “at least once every 30 performances but not less than once every three months.” This means that if you put on eight shows a week you should be testing your fire safety curtain once a month.

Both standards require an annual inspection that includes a test of all manual emergency release points that will deploy the curtain. You are not required to test the fusible links; they only require a visual inspection. The annual inspection must be performed by a “Qualified Person,” and the AHJ must be informed of the date and time. (Strongly recommended by the NFPA standard, required under the ANSI.) According to OSHA a “Qualified Person” is defined as: “one who, by possession of a recognized degree, certificate, or professional standing, or who by extensive knowledge, training and experience, has successfully demonstrated his ability to solve or resolve problems relating to the subject matter, the work, or the project.”

Both standards also require annual training of the staff by the inspector and that all the details of the inspection be recorded in the logbook.

Now that I had emergency testing out of the way, I was free to contemplate the question that Mueller posed: “Is your fire safety curtain closed?” Consulting the standards, I found that, indeed, both standards agree that when the theatre is not in use the fire curtain should be in the closed position. While it seems counter-intuitive (an emergency fail-safe in operation in a non-emergency situation), the reasoning behind this standard is sound.

First, in the event a fire breaks out when the theatre is closed, the fire curtain will contain the fire to one side or the other. Second, closing the curtain regularly will provide a chance for operational testing and visual inspection on a more regular basis. (ANSI specifically details this in the standard’s appendix.) Third, closing the fire curtain gives theatre operators the opportunity to see if any set pieces, workboxes, ladders, or anything else that might get left on stage is placed in the path of the fire curtain and would restrict its ability to fully close—an explicitly forbidden state of affairs, as it renders the fire curtain useless.

For their part, J.R. Clancy offered a few more practical benefits for closing your fire curtain. Safety-wise, a closed fire curtain seals the proscenium opening, so someone in the dark cannot walk past the opening and off the front of the stage. On the security side, with your curtain down and your fire doors closed, the backstage area is effectively sealed from prying hands.

Myths busted, standards stated, and even more info about why it’s a good idea to follow these standards offered, it’s time you started following these standards if you aren’t already. Too many people’s safety depend on you—not to mention that laws may require it. Next month we’ll look at the difference between standards and codes.

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