As states continue looking for ways to safely reopen the economy, many jurisdictions are allowing businesses, specifically restaurants, to open, provided that the seating area for customers is located outside, tables are located at least 6 feet apart, and the number of patrons at each table is limited. As I spent some time driving around Massachusetts recently, I could not help but notice the large number of tents erected in the parking lots and around properties allowing restaurants and businesses to provide outdoor seating during COVID-19 times.
To help code officials, Authorities Having Jurisdiction (AHJs) (i.e., the building department, fire department, etc.), business owners, and facility managers ensure that tents are used properly and safely in their jurisdictions, NFPA has developed a new fact sheet, Building and Life Safety for Tents.
Some may think that because these tents are temporary structures that precautions for fire protection and life safety aren’t needed, but in truth, it is more important than ever. This past July 6th marked the 76th anniversary of the Hartford Circus fire, which killed 168 people and injured over 500 when a fire broke out in a circus tent and spread rapidly due to the combustible canvas. The occupants within the tent were unable to evacuate in time due to the limited means of egress that was not properly maintained.
NFPA 101, Life Safety Code, section 11.11 and NFPA 1, Fire Code, chapter 25 contain requirements that address the use of tents and membrane structures. First, tents are only permitted to be used on a temporary basis and cannot be used as a permanent structure, which means they should not be erected for more than 180 days. The means of egress must comply with the requirements for the occupancy of the tent. Restaurants with an occupant load of 50 or more people are classified as assembly occupancies, while restaurants with less than 50 people are classified as mercantile occupancies. To determine the appropriate occupancy, the number of occupants in the space needs to be calculated to ensure that there is proper exit capacity and a proper number of exits. Additional egress features to consider include exit marking and emergency lighting within the tent. It is also important to make sure that exits from a tent cannot be blocked. For example, if the tent is erected in a parking lot, it is possible for a vehicle to park against an exit and block it. This could be mitigated with the use of barricades and signs as well as educating the staff. This education is important as the maintenance of the means of egress in these tents is critical to ensuring that nothing (including the tent wires and supports) obstructs the exits, aisles, and other means of egress.
The location of the tent must be approved by the AHJ to ensure that it does not block fire department access or the means of egress from other buildings, and is not located too close to other buildings or lot lines. Additionally, at least a 10 ft (3 m) distance around the tent must be maintained free of combustible material. There also should be a distance of at least 10 ft (3 m) between stake lines of multiple tents to provide means of egress from the tents.
One of the biggest concerns with a tent as demonstrated during the Hartford Circus fire is the flammability of the tent fabric, and because of this, both NFPA 1 and NFPA 101 require that the tent material meets the flame propagation performance requirements of NFPA 701, Standard Methods of Fire Tests for Flame Propagation of Textiles and Films. This is a test performed on the fabric of the tent by a testing organization, who will issue a certificate if the fabric has passed the test.
In order to limit the exposure to fire, several safety measures must be put in place. Smoking within the tent is not permitted and “NO SMOKING” signs need to be posted. Restaurants in some states are only permitted outdoor seating at this time and will be using these seating areas in all weather conditions, perhaps seeking to use heaters if it gets cool. All heating equipment used within the tent must be listed for that use and all containers for LP gas need to be at least 5 ft (1.5m) from the tent. Fire extinguishers are required within the tent as directed by the AHJ.
In sum, there are multiple safety precautions that must be followed if you are going to erect a tent or membrane structure, and this was not an all-inclusive review of all requirements. For any restaurant, business or other group planning to use a tent, make sure to contact the AHJ, review all applicable requirements in NFPA 1 and NFPA 101, and have the plans reviewed by a qualified person.
For more information, go to www.nfpa.org
This article originally appeared on NFPA Xchange, an online community for those interested in protecting people and property from harm. For the most up to date information from the NFPA regarding fire and life safety in the midst of COVID-19, be sure to check out https://www.nfpa.org/coronavirus.