Ringling Brothers Circus Tent Fire

Ringling Brothers Circus Tent Fire

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The worst disaster in the history of Hartford took place in 19944 in July 6th, while the Ringling Bros were performing. With several thousand viewers gathered to watch the circus under the big top, flames appeared and spread rapidly, inadvertently increased by the mixture of paraffin and gasoline that the waterproof canvas of the circus was made of. Panic was as deadly as the fire, the crowd stampeded and in a fit of confusion struggled to escape the tent, and many died because of this. Others died because they were blocked by building obstacles like steel railing and animal chutes blocking way to the main exit. Meanwhile, the spectators saved hundreds of the viewers, aided by circus workers and passersby who sliced open the tents and lifted the injured and children over the barriers. However, despite their efforts, 168 people died from the fire (Ahearn, 1990).

A number of officials from the performing brothers were sentenced to prison terms because of negligence and enabling the fire, however, no one was ever charged for starting the fire. As a result, of the fire, several codes and regulations were implemented for fire safety in commercial tents and in circuses. As a result, of the regulations circuses are needed to have a fire department at standby during performance, with charged hose lines, a dedicated fire watch also has to be present during these performances. In addition to this, aisles have to be present free of seats and viewers. These were just some of the regulations put in place to control fires in such performances (Ahearn, 1990). This paper will review two such codes that were put in place to protect audiences from occurrences of fire and to minimize occurrences of fire.

The first code related to this fire is called the NFPA 102 code. The origin of this code is a committee project that was launched immediately after the circus fire that killed 168 people. A committee was organized under the combined leadership of the National Fire Protection Association and the Building Officials Conference of America under the standards outlined by the American Standards Association. Because of the broad deliberation during the winter of 1945, the committee came up with a draft of a proposed code or standard, which was presented at the annual conference of the NFPA in 1945. A printed copy was then sent to all members of the association, group representatives of leaders in outdoor entertainment and amusement industry and to everyone else who requites a copy. Because of this wide spread distribution, numerous constructive suggestions were obtained, all which the committee considered leading to the completion of the code in 1946 (An overview of NFPA).

The standard addresses a number of things regarding assembly, seating, tents, grandstands and membrane structures. The first thing that the standard addresses is the location, construction, maintenance and protection of bleachers and grandstands, telescopic and folding seats, membrane structures and tents. The code provides guidelines on how these should be maintained and installed to reduce instances of fires and to decrease the likelihood of fires spreading in case they are started. The other amusement industry facilities the standard addresses are the seating facilities that are placed and located within semi- enclosed or closed structures and open-air structures such as membrane structures, tents, and stadium complexes (An overview of NFPA).

One of the many reasons why the fire at Harford circus spread so quickly was the condition of the tents the circus used. They were covered in wax, paraffin and oil to make them water- proof. Despite making the tents waterproof, these materials made it possible for the fire to spread quickly trapping all the viewers inside the tent. The seating arrangements were also wrong (Ahearn, 1990). The code, therefore, addresses such issues to make sure that the material that is used to construct tents is inflammable, and to ensure that the seating facilities and arrangements allow viewers to move freely.

The other code that was influenced by the 1944 circus fire is the NFPA 5000 building construction and safety code. This code is scientifically supported and based and it is the only construction and building code that was developed through a process accredited by ANSI, and the only one arranged and organized by occupancy. The code puts together regulations controlling construction, design, use of occupancy, quality of material, maintenance of building and structures and location with life and fire safety needs found in other codes of NFPA and standards like the Life Safety Code (An overview of NFPA).

The code, therefore, addresses five main issues. It addresses the occupancy type like clinic, hospital, family dwelling, hotel, day care, storage facility and industrial building. It also addresses structural design, from wind loads to seismic criteria to flood design. The code addresses materials of construction like steel, concrete, wood, masonry, glass and plastic. In addition to these, it also deals with life and fire safety elements like fire protection equipment and systems, fire resistant materials and means of egress, construction and accessibility. Finally, the standard deals with building systems like mechanical, electrical, elevator, plumbing and conveying. These codes or standards by the NFPA make it possible for amusement companies to come up with buildings that are fireproof (An overview of NFPA).


Ahearn, J. (1990). The Ghost of Fires Past. The Record. Bergen County NJ.

An overview of NFPA. National Fire Protection Association. Retrieved from http://www.nfpa.org/itemDetail.asp?categoryID=495&itemID=17991