Fire Safety

Fires in Films – What Would Really Happen?

June 18, 2018
fire movies

The movies – they don’t have to be accurate to be fun! Even fire safety experts like to watch films, but whenever it comes to fire scenes, they’ll constantly be calling out the gaffes and goofs. So with that, let’s take a trip to the movies – armed with the knowledge of fire protection – and see what would really happen in those famous movie fires.

The Towering Inferno

Where better to start than a film about bad fire safety? 1974’s The Towering Inferno is the story of an architect with a vision – but money-grabbing subcontractors cut corners on the construction, leading to a deadly opening day blaze in the world’s tallest building.

The Glass Tower is the (thankfully) fictional building in question, rises above San Francisco at 138 storeys tall. That might not sound like much, but in the early 1970s, a 138 storey building was a fantastically tall structure which would have been some 30% taller than the Empire State Building – the tallest building in the world at the time. Today, the Burj Khalifa blows that fantasy away at 163 storeys tall – with Dubai’s fire safety regulations built in.

In the film, the fire starts plausibly enough: with an electrical short circuit (although it does happen to be on the one floor used to store an inordinate amount paint thinner). The building’s full of partygoers celebrating opening day, high in the upper floors. Only once smoke is seen on the 81st floor does the peril escalate – and we learn of the multiple shortcuts taken to finish the building cheaply.

The first gaffe is when Mr. Duncan says that the building has the latest fire protection devices. Even in 1974, sprinkler systems were available – and they were hardly the latest invention in fire safety. Actually, the building was in breach of numerous fire safety regulations at the time, and wouldn’t have been allowed to open in the first place.

After the fire is noticed, Fire Chief O’Halloran does something a trained fire safety profession would never do – he allows the party to continue, even though an explosive fire is raging in the building. A real firefighter would have ordered a complete and immediate evacuation of the building, with no hesitation.

Then there’s the water tank scene – where explosives are used to send the contents of the tanks gushing down the building, extinguishing the flames. Never mind the shaky physics of water flow assumed to be in operation – we’re led to believe that the six rooftop tanks each contained one million gallons of water. This would weigh more than 22,000 tonnes and occupy a volume equivalent to nine Olympic size swimming pools – which wouldn’t reasonably fit atop any skyscraper.

So it’s not accurate, but it’s just a film – and film has never hurt anybody… or has it?

Inglourious Basterds

This movie makes film itself a weapon. It’s a shockingly violent, uncomfortably tense ride through Nazi Occupied France in the 1940s – with some exceptional performances and one of the most love-to-hate villains in movie history. Without diving into the subject matter or gory details too much, let’s take a look at the penultimate act – the movie theatre fire.

In a high stakes effort to eliminate the entire Nazi leadership, an unlikely collaboration between a cinema owner and the title’s namesakes ends with a roaring, inescapable inferno. It’s a fiendish proposition – but could it have worked for real?

The plan unfolds as the Nazi elite flock to a French cinema, with a special showing of a fiercely patriotic, pro-Nazi film. The theatre would then be barricaded shut – all exits sealed off to keep the occupants trapped inside, quietly unaware that a fire was about to be started right in front of them. And the fuel? Nitrate film, also known as nitrocellulose – which would have been in abundant supply in an old cinema. In the film, the pile of nitrocellulose set alight looks pretty small compared to the building – so could it really have brought a whole theatre to its knees?

In short – yes. Nitrate film is highly flammable, and does not cease burning when submerged in water. It can spontaneously combust in storage, with no exposure to air. This is because it contains an oxygen supply within the molecular structure (which made it an excellent solid rocket fuel for underwater torpedoes).

A small amount of nitrate film can fuel a relentless blaze, and routinely burned cinemas and film stores down for decades – with tragic results. Fire safety and prevention were only somewhat considered in early theatre designs, which claimed hundreds of lives over decades, before any regulation was established. In modern architecture, fire curtains have thankfully changed the way we manage open spaces and means of escape.

There would however have been fire shutters to close off the projection room, which would have been asbestos-lined to prevent a film fire from spreading – but seeing as the reels were removed and placed by the screen for burning, it wouldn’t have counted for much.

By making escape impossible, the film makes accurate predictions of the fire’s spread, intensity and deadliness – but it’s in no way historically accurate otherwise.

*Batteries Not Included

Children of the 1980s grew up in strange times – but they witnessed firsthand the greatest period in Hollywood’s history. Coming out of left field, *Batteries Not Included was a glorious oddity among oddities – combining emotional drama, slapstick and science fiction. It received mixed reviews, but if you like the idea of tiny, flying mechanical aliens helping Jessica Tandy cope with loss and fight a ruthless property developer, it’ll be right up your alley!

The final act sees the apartment building that the film is set in burn down, in a fire caused by the work of a crafty arsonist. But there’s a major giveaway that it’s all fake – in the scene where the fire spreads into the basement, you can see the swinging, flaming ropes used to make it appear that the fire’s spreading.

The building’s age is a key plot point – and even though the crew bungled the flaming ropes, the building’s vulnerability to fire and collapse was very accurate. The apartment block used for filming resembles a 19th century tenement, located on the Lower East Side of Manhattan. These were notoriously fire-prone buildings that often collapsed, trapping occupants inside. The matter was only addressed with The Tenement House Act of 1867, which included legislation requiring fire exits to be installed.

Thankfully, fire safety has come an awfully long way since then – and at Coopers Fire, we’re taking it further still.

Real World Fire Protection

At Coopers Fire, we’re always developing our products to keep us at the cutting edge of fire safety. To find out more about our products and services, or to enrol in one of our educational training courses, call us on 02392 454 405 or email info@coopersfire.com.

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