Fire protection engineer says Donald Trump’s comments negligent, reckless & potentially deadly

Previous coverage of Donald Trump & the nation’s fire marshals

On Monday, Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump again urged a fire marshal to let more people into a campaign rally. This has been a theme for Trump since July of 2015. It became controversial a year later when Trump claimed fire marshals in Colorado Springs, Colorado and Columbus, Ohio were politically motivated when they limited the number of people who could attend his events.

At Monday’s rally at Ambridge Senior High School in Ambridge, Pennsylvania (video above), Trump approached the issue differently, citing his own expertise on the subject of fire safety in public assembly buildings:

I always get a kick when — I mean I  know a lot about fire and fire marshals, but you have a room with four walls and a roof and nothing to burn. Let the people in.

April Musser also knows a lot about fire and fire marshals and has written an open letter in response to Donald Trump’s continued focus on the nation’s fire marshals. Ms. Musser sent the letter to STATter911 today (Thursday) and it is published below.

April Musser is a wife, mother, and a former firefighter. She has over 15 years of experience in fire protection and is currently employed as a Fire Protection Engineer and Code Consultant in the Metro Atlanta area. The opinions expressed in this letter are the personal opinions of Ms. Musser and may not represent the opinions of her employer.

As always, STATter911 welcomes other views on this and other topics.

April Musser, Fire Protection Engineer

An open letter to Donald Trump:

Dear Mr. Trump,

I have a Bachelor of Science in Fire Protection Engineering from the University of Maryland, College Park and I am a licensed Fire Protection Engineer with expert knowledge of the requirements for egress capacity and occupant loading for the types of facilities that house the campaign events you’ve been hosting. You have repeatedly suggested that based on your knowledge and experience, you can attest to the fact that these facilities are safe from fire and, therefore, it should be permissible to exceed the allowable occupant loads. You have also suggested that officials seeking to enforce the occupant load limits are doing so based on political ideology instead of safety.

These comments are irresponsible and your suggestions could be considered criminally negligent.

Occupant loads in a facility are limited by the available egress capacity. The egress capacities are calculated based on years of research and analysis of human behavior in fire and other emergencies and they are calculated to ensure safe and timely evacuation with the goal of protecting life.  More importantly, the process by which these building and fire codes are adopted in each jurisdiction makes these requirements the law. As a result, violation of these requirements is a criminal act. Every time you criticized a fire marshal for enforcing the occupant load limits, you criticized a public official for refusing to break the law for your convenience.

As a person seeking the highest office in the nation in which you will be required to swear an oath to uphold the laws of this country, your suggestion that a public official break the law illustrates incredibly poor judgement.  It suggests that you have no respect for the law and inspires doubts about your commitment to upholding the Constitution and the Bill of Rights. Furthermore, you are asking the local code officials to violate the oaths of their office to uphold the law and protect the lives of the people they serve. This is not only irresponsible, but it is negligent and reckless and the unintended consequences could cost someone their life.

You should know that there is a very strong legal precedent in this country that a person may be held both criminally and civilly responsible for injuries and deaths that result from building and fire code violations. In fact, the legal precedent does not excuse ignorance of the requirements nor does it require malicious intent to prosecute. The owner of the Station Nightclub in West Warwick, Rhode Island was charge with 200 counts of manslaughter (two for every person that perished in the fire). It did not matter that he lacked malicious intent and his ignorance of the code requirements he violated was deemed irrelevant.  

You recently suggested that the occupant load should be exceeded because you felt the fuel load in the facility was very low and, therefore, the threat of fire was minimal. What you fail to take into account is the fact that occupant loads are not only to provide safe egress during a fire, but also during other types of emergencies which might include earthquakes, terror attacks, bomb threats, shootings, and the like. In addition, the occupant load and egress capacities mandated by the fire and building codes already take into account the low fuel load in these types of assembly occupancies. The following quote comes from the commentary to the 2012 International Building Code:

“The fire hazard in terms of combustible contents (fuel load) in structures classified in Group A-3 is most often expected to be moderate to low.”

In addition, because the building and fire codes also provide requirements for interior finish, the code mandated occupant load limits also includes consideration of the fact that floor, ceiling, and wall finishes are required to meet specific criteria to limit the flame spread and smoke development.

Assembly occupancies present the greatest risk to life during an evacuation because of the high occupant load. The following is another excerpt from the 2012 International Building Code Commentary:

“Assembly buildings as well as other buildings that include spaces that function as assembly spaces (i.e., the band classroom in a school, the training room in an office, the cafeteria in a large factory) present an unusual life safety problem that includes frequent high occupant densities and therefore large occupant loads and the opportunity for irrational mass response to a perceived emergency, i.e., panic.”

It has been tragically proven again and again that when the occupant load in a facility outstrips the available egress capacity, people get hurt and people die. In the Triangle Shirtwaist fire, 146 people died. In the Cocoanut Grove Nightclub fire, 492 people died. In the Beverly Hills Supper Club fire, 164 people died. In the Station Nightclub Fire, 100 people died. In each of these fires, the occupant load outstripped the available egress with fatal consequences.

However, fires are not the only concerns in assembly occupancies. In 2003, 21 people died and more than 50 were injured when panic ensued after security guards used pepper spray to break up a fight in the E2 Nightclub in Chicago. Investigators determined that overcrowding was a significant factor that contributed to the large number of casualties as the number of people in the facility exceeded the allowable occupant load limits.

These cases I have cited are just a few examples; I could provide many more pages of documented cases where people were injured or died because the number of people in the facility exceeded the allowable occupant load and egress capacity.

Mr. Trump, please stop suggesting that building and code officials violate the law. Please stop insinuating that occupant load limits are not important. You do not have the requisite experience or knowledge to make such a determination. You have not been educated on the considerations that go into occupant load and egress capacity calculations. Your flippant attitude toward laws in place to protect life is dangerous, reckless, and criminally negligent. More importantly, you are seeking to hold an office that requires you to commit to upholding the law. Your suggestion that you shouldn’t be bound by these laws suggests that you can’t be trusted to take your oath of office seriously should you be elected. If you expect the citizens of this country to elect you to its highest office, you cannot continue to behave so irresponsibly with complete disregard for the rules of law while ignoring the risk to the people that these laws are designed to protect. You own an apology to the fire and building code officials that you have publicly castigated for refusing to violate the oaths of their office or break the law. You cannot continue to behave in a reckless and negligent manner that could put lives in jeopardy.

Occupant load limits are important, Mr. Trump. The fire protection and building code community respectfully requests that you immediately cease any suggestion to the contrary. As a citizen, I request that you make the safety and protection of the public a priority and commit to upholding the fire code and building code requirements.

Kindest Regards,

April M. Musser, PE

Fire Protection Engineer

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