Office of the Fire Marshal

Fairfax County, Virginia

CONTACT INFORMATION: Office Hours: 8 a.m.-4:30 p.m., Monday-Friday, Lobby Hours: 7:30 a.m.-3:30 p.m., Monday-Friday

703-246-4800
TTY 711

12099 Government Center Parkway
Fairfax, VA 22035

John Walser,
Battalion Chief

Haunted House Guideline

CODE COMPLIANCE GUIDELINE

** PUBLIC SAFETY PLAN REQUIRED **

This publication outlines the Virginia Statewide Fire Prevention Code (i.e., Fire Prevention Code or SFPC) fire safety requirements and prohibitions related to temporary haunted houses open to the public in buildings located within Fairfax County and the towns of Clifton, Herndon, and Vienna. This publication does not address all-night graduation/after-prom events, nor does it address special amusement buildings as defined by the Fire Prevention Code.

*** Please Review This Entire Publication BEFORE TAKING ACTION ***

Questions regarding the content of this publication should be directed to the Fire Inspections Branch at 703-246-4849 during regular office hours, Monday thru Friday, 8:00 a.m. to 4:00 p.m.

 

OVERVIEW

During the fall season, in particular the week of Halloween, community groups, schools, and amusement organizations design, setup, and operate temporary haunted houses, scare houses, or Halloween-themed occupancies intended to amuse and entertain the occupants. In many cases, these temporary “haunted house” operations are configured in a manner that potentially increases the risk to the occupants because of audio-visual special effects, reduced lighting, combustible materials, and confused and/or maze-like means of egress arrangements.

In an effort to maintain a higher level of fire and life safety, minimize the risk to the occupants of these seasonal attractions, and meet the spirit and functional intent of the Fire Prevention Code, the Fire Marshal's Office has established the following public safety planning procedures and general fire safety guidelines to assist planners and operators of temporary haunted houses. This publication does not replace, nor supersede, any provisions of the Fire Prevention Code or other codes and/or ordinances adopted by Fairfax County.

THREE STEP PROCESS. The following steps form the procedural framework for completing the public safety plan submittal/retrieval and scheduling a fire marshal inspection.

STEP 1 - Submit required public safety plan for review and approval. (See page 4 for plan details)

STEP 2 - Retrieve approved public safety plan and pay plan review fees.

STEP 3 - Schedule a fire marshal inspection.

 

STEP 1 - SUBMIT REQUIRED PUBLIC SAFETY PLAN

An application for public safety plan review for each temporary haunted house open to the public shall be made in writing to the Fire Marshal's Office by the responsible party. Applications may be obtained by calling the Revenue & Records Branch at 703-246-4803 or online.

Plan Submittal Instructions. The following documentation (i.e., contents of the public safety plan) must be submitted along with the completed public safety plan review application to the Fire Marshal's Office for review and approval at least 15 days prior to the event:

  • Three (3) copies of a written emergency plan. (See page 3 for details)
  • (3) copies of a facility layout plan. (See page 3 for details)
  • Copies of any/all documentation certifying that all decorative materials and/or decorative vegetation are compliant with the Fire Prevention Code and applicable referenced standards such as NFPA 701.

Submit the plan review application and three (3) copies of the public safety plan to this address:

Fairfax County Fire Marshal's Office

ATTN: Revenue & Records Branch (Haunted)

12099 Government Center Parkway

Fairfax, VA 22035

 

Plan Review Fee. An hourly fee of $156 will be charged for the review of the public safety plan. Hourly fees are charged in quarter hour increments ($39), rounded to the next quarter hour. Do not include a payment with your plan submittal. Mailed invoices are not provided. Full payment for plan review services is required at the time approved copies of the plan are retrieved.

STEP 2 - RETRIEVE APPROVED PUBLIC SAFETY PLAN

After the public safety plan is reviewed and approved, please make arrangements to retrieve two copies of the approved plan. The Fire Marshal's Office will retain one copy. Copies of approved plans must be retrieved in person from the 12099 Government Center Parkway address listed above during regular office hours. Plans will only be released after all plan review fees have been paid in full. To find out the review status of the submitted haunted house public safety plan, call 703-246-4803 during regular office hours, Monday thru Friday, 8:00 a.m. to 4:00 p.m.

Notice about Fire Marshal Approval. In accordance with Section 107.7 of the Fire Prevention Code, plans approved by the fire official are approved with the intent that they comply in all respects to the Fire Prevention Code. Any omissions or errors on the public safety plan do not relieve the applicant (i.e., responsible party) of complying with all applicable requirements. Furthermore, final approval of a temporary haunted house open to the public is subject to a final fire marshal inspection prior to opening to the public.

STEP 3 - SCHEDULE FIRE MARSHAL INSPECTION

Approval of a temporary haunted house open to the public is finalized through a fire marshal inspection, which must be scheduled by the responsible party for a date at least one business day prior to the operation of the haunted house. To schedule an inspection, call the Fire Inspections Branch at 703-246-4849, Monday thru Friday, 8:00 a.m. to 4:00 p.m.

Notice: The approved public safety plan must be available at the event location at all times.

Inspection Fee. An hourly fee of $156 will be charged for the fire marshal inspection. Hourly fees are charged in quarter hour increments ($39), rounded to the next quarter hour. Advance payment for the inspection is not required. The responsible party will be billed. Payment of fire marshal inspection fees is due upon receipt of the invoice.

 

NOTICE TO HAUNTED HOUSE PLANNERS

Fire Prevention Code. When planning your haunted house event or operation, please be aware of code requirements and/or restrictions related to fire and life safety. During the establishment of a temporary haunted house in an existing building, planners are often shocked to learn of numerous limitations as to what can be done in a building to create a temporary haunted house. Proposed haunted house arrangements and/or modes of operation may create fire code violations. In some cases serious violations result, which include blocked or removed emergency exits, introduction of combustible decorations and other hazardous materials, inadequate fire and life safety systems, and poor emergency evacuation planning. All aspects of the temporary haunted house arrangement and/or operation must comply with the Fire Prevention Code.

Change of Use. One of the most common fire code violations involving temporary haunted houses is known as a change of use, where the approved occupancy classification of a building or structure has been changed because of the arrangement or mode of occupancy. For example, a mercantile occupancy in a strip shopping center that has been converted into a special amusement building would require that the mercantile occupancy be brought up to the current building code as a special amusement building. Another example would be using a warehouse to operate a temporary night club, which would require the warehouse be brought up to the current building code as an assembly occupancy. Bringing an occupancy up to the current code may include, but is not limited to, upgrading the fire alarm and fire sprinkler systems, installing fire walls and providing additional life safety items. A temporary haunted house may not be possible if the occupancy classification of the structure in which the proposed haunted house is located has been changed without approval of the local building official.

Section 301.3 of the Fire Prevention Code requires that the occupancy of a structure shall be continued as originally permitted under and in full compliance with the codes in force at the time of construction or alteration. Furthermore, the occupancy of a structure shall not change to another occupancy that will subject the structure to any special provisions of this code or the USBC without the approval of the building official. Both examples above would require a building permit and subsequent approval by the building official. Haunted house planners should not over extend the arrangement and/or operation of the haunted house; this may trigger an illegal change of use.

 

SPECIAL AMUSEMENT BUILDINGS

A building that is temporary, permanent or mobile that contains a device or system that conveys passengers or provides a walkway along, around or over a course in any direction as a form of amusement arranged so that the egress path is not readily apparent due to visual or audio distractions or an intentionally confounded egress path, or is not readily available because of the mode of conveyance through the building is defined as a special amusement building

Permits Required. Temporary haunted houses arranged and/or operated as special amusement buildings as defined by the Fire Prevention Code must comply with the building code prior to occupancy and operation. More specifically, a building permit is required to establish a special amusement building. A special amusement building must comply with Section 411 of the building code, which outlines the requirements associated with automatic fire detection, automatic sprinkler systems, emergency voice/alarm communication systems, exit markings, and interior finishes. Once approved by the building official, special amusement building operators shall obtain an operational permit prior to beginning operations.

Written emergency plans shall include:

  • Complete contact information for the haunted house operator(s). This information should include names, mobile phone numbers, a mailing address, and current e-mail addresses.
  • Complete contact information for the building owner’s agent (e.g., property manager, building engineer/operator, leasing agent), along with alternate, after-hours, and emergency contact information. This information should include names, positions, mobile phone numbers, a mailing address, and current e-mail addresses.
  • Indicate if the building owner’s agent (e.g., property manager, building engineer/operator, leasing agent) will be on site during haunted house setup, operation, and break down.
  • The dates and times the temporary haunted house will be open for occupancy (operation).
  • The maximum number of attendees permitted in the haunted house at one time.
  • Brief description of individual activity areas including associated audio-visual special effects.
  • Evacuation and accountability procedures for all attendees in the event of an emergency.
  • Procedure(s) for reporting a fire or other emergency. (See “Fire Department Notification” on page 5)
  • Means of communication available to summon help, if needed.
  • A plan to immediately stop any music, all audio-visual special effects, and to turn on the lights in the event of fire alarm activation or any emergency.
  • When all attendants/staff will review the approved public safety plan, be trained in their duties, and conduct a walk through the haunted house and associated areas of the facility.

Key points to consider when formulating your written emergency plan:

  • A minimum of one attendant should supervise each activity area, and shall perform appropriate duties in case of fire, panic or other emergency while the haunted house is in operation. Each attendant should have a working flashlight with them at all times.
  • Assure that all attendants/staff of the haunted house are trained in the duties to be performed in case of fire, panic, or other emergency to include the operation of portable fire extinguishers, sounding or activating the fire alarm, calling 911, and evacuating the facility.
  • Emergency procedures and evacuation plans should be reviewed and discussed with all facility and event attendants/staff to identify the procedures and actions to be taken in the case of fire, power outages, or other emergencies requiring immediate action.
  • The written emergency plan should correlate with the contents of the facility layout plan, which is essentially the graphical representation of the emergency plan.

Facility layout plans shall be in the form of a legible diagram and include:

  • Locations of all exits and exit stairways (clearly marked).
  • Locations and lengths of corridors, pathways and aisles leading to all exits (clearly marked).
  • Primary and secondary evacuation routes (clearly distinguishable).
  • Evacuation staging area(s) (clearly marked).
  • Location of all planned activity areas and significant decorative displays (clearly marked).
  • Location of all approved fire extinguishers (clearly marked).
  • Location of controls to stop any music, all audio-visual special effects and to turn on the lights in the event of fire alarm activation or any emergency (clearly marked).
  • Location(s) of portable power equipment utilized for the event such as a generator.

Important Notice about Portable Generators:

  • Portable generators shall not block any means of egress, be located outside at least 20 feet away from the building, and have an approved fire extinguisher in close proximity.
  • The use of an electrical generator 6500 watts or greater requires an electrical permit and inspection. Contact the Department of Public Works and Environmental Services (DPWES) at 703-222-0801 for information about electrical permits and required inspections.

 

FIRE WATCH PERSONNEL

In accordance with Section 403.11.1 of the Fire Prevention Code, when, in the opinion of the fire code official, it is essential for public safety in a place of assembly or any other place where people congregate, because of the number of persons or the nature of the performance, exhibition, display, contest or activity, the owner, agent or lessee shall provide one or more fire watch personnel, as required and approved. Fire watch personnel shall remain on duty during the times places requiring a fire watch are open to the public, or when an activity requiring a fire watch is being conducted, as required by Section 403.11.1.1 of the Fire Prevention Code. The number of fire watch personnel is dependent on size, layout and activities in the haunted house.

Haunted Houses. As previously mentioned, temporary haunted houses open to the public can create potential fire and life-safety hazards/risks to the occupants because of audible/visual special effects, reduced lighting, combustible materials, and confused and/or maze-like means of egress arrangements, while also adversely affecting public safety services; therefore, the operators of temporary haunted houses open to the public shall provide fire watch personnel as prescribed above. Additionally, all haunted house attendants/staff shall be trained in the listed duties in addition to the procedures outlined in the approved written emergency plan.

Duties. In accordance with Section 403.11.1.2 of the Fire Prevention Code, fire watch personnel shall have the following duties:

  • Keep diligent watch for fires, obstructions to means of egress and other hazards.
  • Take prompt measures for remediation of hazards and extinguishment of fires that occur.
  • Take prompt measures to assist in the evacuation of the public from the structure.

 

FIRE DEPARTMENT NOTIFICATION

In accordance with sections 401.3, 901.7, and 5003.3.1 of the Fire Prevention Code (as amended by Fairfax County), notification of emergency responders shall be as follows:

Fire Events. In the event an unwanted fire occurs on a property, the owner or occupant (i.e., you or attendants/staff) shall immediately notify the fire department (911) and implement the evacuation plan. When an unwanted fire is discovered, do not delay! Notify the occupants, evacuate the structure as appropriate, and immediately call 911!

Alarm Activations. Upon activation of a fire alarm signal, you, attendants/staff or employees shall immediately notify the fire department (911) and implement the evacuation plan. This includes activation of monitored fire alarms designed to automatically call the fire department upon activation; employees or staff must also call 911 to report the fire alarm signal.

Hazardous Materials Release. Any person who witnesses, discovers, or otherwise has knowledge of a spill, leak or other release of a hazardous material or other material that may negatively impact the environment, regardless of quantity, shall immediately report such spill, leak or release to the Department of Public Safety Communications (DPSC) by calling 911.

Out of Service Fire Protection Systems. Where a fire protection system is out of service, the fire department and the fire code official shall be notified immediately by calling the Fire Marshal's Office at 703-246-4821 during regular office hours (M-F, 7a-3p). Otherwise, call DPSC after-hours at 703-691-2131 to make this non-emergency notification.

Delayed Notification Prohibited. A person shall not, by verbal or written directive, require any delay in the reporting of a fire to the fire department.

False Report Prohibited. It is unlawful for a person to give, signal, or transmit a false alarm.

 

FIRE SAFETY GUIDELINES

The following is only a partial list of the Fire Prevention Code fire safety requirements and prohibitions commonly associated with temporary haunted houses open to the public.

Fire Protection Equipment & Systems

ALL FIRE PROTECTION EQUIPMENT & SYSTEMS SHALL BE OPERATIONAL!

Fire protection equipment and warning devices such as fire alarm panel(s), fire sprinkler heads, fire department hose connections, manual pull stations, audible and visual alarm devices (e.g., horns, speakers, strobes), and portable fire extinguishers shall not be obstructed from immediate access, view, and/or operation by any decorative material, displays, equipment, furnishings, or storage.

Emergency Vehicle Access & Fire Lanes

MAINTAIN EMERGENCY ACCESS - FIRE LANES SHALL NOT BE BLOCKED!

  • Emergency vehicle access to the building or event facility shall be maintained at all times.
  • If the facility has designated and approved fire lanes, it shall be unlawful to park or obstruct such designated fire lanes.
  • When planning for parking, advise all attendees to observe fire lane regulations to avoid the possibility of getting a $50 parking ticket and/or having their vehicle(s) towed.
  • Parking is prohibited within 15 feet of a fire hydrant; $50 parking ticket and tow!
  • Identify the best locations for ambulance access to building entry doorways to help expedite emergency medical service, when needed.

Emergency Exits & Evacuation Routes

Maintain all exits open - Locked & BLOCKED Exit doors are prohibited!

  • Decorations or other objects shall not be placed in any way that would obstruct any exit.
  • Required exits shall be continuously maintained free from obstructions or impediments to full instant use in the case of fire or other emergency.
  • Exit doors shall be readily operable from the egress side (inside) without the use of a key, special knowledge, or special effort.
  • Minimum required width of exit access aisles and passageways shall be maintained clear.
  • Exit enclosures, exit stairwells, and exit corridors shall be kept free of obstructions, combustible materials, tables and chairs, decorations, displays, storage and people, and shall be accessible for egress and properly illuminated at all times.
  • All exit signs shall be illuminated and clearly visible.
  • Emergency lighting shall be maintained and operational.

Open-Flame, Smoking, and Special Effects

Protect the occupants from fire - Eliminate ignition sources!

  • Candles and open-flame lanterns shall be prohibited inside temporary haunted houses.
  • Self-contained decorative open-flame devices may be used outside of the temporary haunted house only with approval of the fire marshal.
  • Smoking shall only be permitted outside and away from the temporary haunted house in approved, designated smoking areas.
  • Portable open-flame heaters shall be prohibited inside temporary haunted houses.
  • Vapor or smoke producing effects, such as smoke machines, are not permitted in temporary haunted houses due to the possibility of fire alarm activation, obscuring of exits and exit signs, and the possibility of increased panic in an emergency.
  • In the event of fire alarm activation or any emergency, a plan shall be in place to turn on the building lighting, and immediately stop all music, noise, and other audio-visual special effects. This procedure should be identified in the written emergency plan.
  • Unless specifically approved by the Fire Marshal, fireworks, pyrotechnics and flame-effects before an audience are prohibited inside and outside the temporary haunted house.

Electrical Safety

Protect the occupants from electrical hazards - ensure code compliant electrical sources!

  • The use of unlisted electrical wiring and lighting on natural cut trees and artificial decorative vegetation shall be prohibited. Electrical wiring and lighting shall be listed and shall be used according to manufacturer’s instructions. The term "Listed" means equipment or materials included on a list published by an approved testing laboratory, inspection agency or other organization, such as Underwriters Laboratory (UL), concerned with product safety evaluation and testing. Listed lighting decorations may be used as long as contact is not made with any combustible material.
  • Lights with loose sockets, frayed or bare wires, and lights that produce excessive heat or other dangerous conditions shall be prohibited.
  • Extension cords must be of the heavy-duty type, shall not be plugged together to make longer cords, and shall not be overloaded. Extension cords shall not be extended through walls or ceilings, or under floor coverings.
  • Extension cords with excessive physical damage and/or frayed or bare wires shall be prohibited, and shall be located and secured to prevent creating a trip hazard.
  • The use of unapproved electrical wiring such as “zip cord” in the arrangement or application of temporary theatrical style lighting shall be prohibited.
  • The use of electrical wiring, devices, appliances and other equipment that is modified or damaged and constitutes an electrical shock or fire hazard shall be prohibited. Open junction boxes and open-wiring splices in electrical circuits and wiring shall be prohibited.

Decorative Materials & Vegetation

Protect the occupants from fire - Ensure materials are fire retardant!

  • Decorations shall not be attached to or suspended from any ceiling or wall-mounted fire and life-safety devices (e.g., sprinklers, exit signs, emergency lighting, alarm devices, etc.).
  • Decorations shall not obstruct the visibility or access to any emergency exit, nor reduce the required minimum clear width of any part of the means of egress.
  • Decorative materials such as curtains, draperies, hangings, and other materials suspended from walls and ceilings shall meet the flame propagation performance criteria of NFPA 701 or be noncombustible. Where required to be flame resistant or flame-retardant, decorative materials shall be tested by an approved agency and meet the flame propagation performance criteria of NFPA 701. Reports of test results shall be prepared in accordance with NFPA 701 and furnished to the fire code official upon request. Be prepared to provide this information in the public safety plan.
  • The permissible amount of decorative materials suspended from walls and ceilings, meeting the flame propagation criteria of NFPA 701 shall not exceed 10 percent of the specific wall or ceiling area to which it is attached.
  • Artificial vegetation shall be certified flame-resistant or flame-retardant in accordance with flame propagation performance criteria of NFPA 701.
  • Flammable natural vegetation materials such as batting, cloth, cotton, hay, stalks, straw, vines, leaves, trees, moss, and similar items shall not be used for decorative purposes in show windows, building lobbies, exits, exit access, or other parts of buildings, or any area of public use in such a quantity as to constitute a fire hazard. Natural cut trees and other natural vegetation shall be in accordance with Chapter 8 of the Fire Prevention Code.

More information is available online about natural and artificial vegetation.

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