Author(s): Angelo Verzoni. Published on July 2, 2018.

Fielding All Challenges

Atlanta's new SunTrust Park is much more than a baseball stadium. From bars and breweries to Metallica, how the local fire department manages a bustling and complex entertainment facility.


Like most Major League Baseball stadiums, the Atlanta Braves’ SunTrust Park is much more than a place where America’s pastime is played.

The stadium is located in Cobb County, Georgia, about 10 miles northwest of downtown Atlanta, and hosts an array of special events. From concerts by Billy Joel and Metallica to a day celebrating the release of the latest Star Wars movie, the diverse events held at the facility attract equally diverse crowds, whose size and unique behaviors inside a space that was designed exclusively for baseball challenge the prescriptive nature of codes and standards, according to Nick Dawe, a deputy fire marshal and captain with Cobb County Fire & Emergency Services.

But by forging a close working relationship with the Braves organization when the stadium was still being designed, the fire department has been able to make each event at the four-story, 1.1-million-square-foot facility safe. It’s an ongoing process of collaboration and innovation between the Braves and the Cobb County fire department, Dawe told me, since virtually no two events are exactly the same. When we spoke in May, he was already at work planning what he considered to be the stadium’s most challenging event to date—back-to-back concerts featuring country rockers Zac Brown Band, followed by Def Leppard and Journey, slated for the last weekend in June.

SunTrust Park is one of over a dozen assembly occupancies located within The Battery, a property that’s still expanding and resembles a town within a town, housing other concert venues, restaurants, bars, a brewery, shops, and office and residential space. But given its size and the frequency with which it hosts non-baseball events—about every weekend, by Dawe’s count—the stadium has been and continues to be the most challenging facility within The Battery to protect from fire and other life safety hazards. Dawe, who serves on several NFPA technical committees, explained some of the reasons why that’s the case.

How much work did your department have to do as SunTrust Park was being built?

There was activity and construction at the property 24/7. To build something that big, we have a record of 1,812 inspections we did over that short two-and-a-half-year period, from the time of the groundbreaking of the stadium to when it opened. And that’s a lot for a department of our size. We would schedule time to review the plans for the stadium with the design team on a weekly basis, all while keeping up with our other inspections and our other plan reviews in the rest of the county, which weren’t delayed.

Knowing how time-consuming a project like that is going to be, what was your department’s reaction to the plans being revealed?

For the most part we were excited about it. We knew that it was going to strain our division, but we were up for the challenge for sure. There were some growing pains and some challenges, but I think overall it ended up going very well. The challenge really was completing this project in two-and-a-half years.

In working with the Braves, what sort of fire protection measures have been included in the stadium?

From a design perspective, it became much less complicated when the Braves agreed to sprinkler the building, even in certain areas where codes would not have required that. The concourses, for example—because they were considered open, they were not required to be sprinklered as a result of the engineering analysis that was conducted. But early in the process the Braves made the decision to sprinkler the concourses, which made certain other design features easier.

Empty SunTrust Ball Park

Play Ball In addition to helping manage special events, Cobb County Fire & Emergency Services is present at all 81 Atlanta Braves home games. Photograph: CURTIS COMPTON/NEWSCOM

Did that cooperation extend to response measures?

From a response perspective, we’ve worked closely with the Braves to optimize fire department access during games and other events. That’s something we as a department are very sensitive to. We shut down internal private roads around the property during games, for example, so we have access throughout the property. We also staff each game with a minimum of two certified Georgia fire inspectors, and we set up an incident command for each game. We actively patrol the property looking for potential problems and try to solve them in real time.

What has it been like working with the Braves organization?

This is our department’s first time working with such a large construction project. We have had some exposition facilities and some smaller school campuses, but I would say the Braves team overall at SunTrust Park are what I perceive them to be—some of the best to work with out there. They have their own engineering team and have been very mindful of safety.

What events at SunTrust Park present the biggest challenge for the fire department?

Concerts are definitely the most challenging events to plan for inside the stadium. They’ve done several so far. Billy Joel was the first one, and I think they had about 37,000 people attend that. The next one was quite the opposite genre of music. Metallica came in right after, with a crowd of about 39,000 people. The baseball field was not designed for 9,000-plus people to be entertaining themselves, drinking, and enjoying a concert. There are no traditional exits. When you’re on the field, you have to ask, where are the exit signs? Where are the fire extinguishers? Having 14 or so entry points and trying to make them all meet the egress requirements when there’s also protective coverings on the field can be a challenge. It’s a challenge to make it all fit inside the scope of codes like NFPA 101®, Life Safety Code®.

For some concerts, there’s also the challenge of pyrotechnics and flame effects, with people being as close as they are to the flames.

How does the process work to make sure pyrotechnic shots and flame effects are safe?

In Georgia we have a unique set of procedures. A licensed commercial fireworks operator applies for a permit at the local probate court system. Once the application has been filed, it gets sent to the fire department, and we then look at what they’re doing—the size of the [pyrotechnic] shots, the volume of the shots, the proximity of the crowd to the shots. And we basically do a safety assessment—we try to follow the procedures in NFPA 160, Use of Flame Effects Before an Audience, and NFPA 1126, Use of Pyrotechnics Before a Proximate Audience.

Was the fact that stadiums are so commonly used for non-sports events considered in the design phase?

No, the baseball stadium was designed purely to play baseball. Would it have been nice to have included that as a design concept? Yes, but it definitely would have delayed the two-and-a-half-year [construction] schedule. So we use the process of special event permitting each time we have a concert. We meet as a group with the Braves, police, and other organizations, and start the process of addressing each stakeholder’s concerns. It takes a bit of time to get everyone on the same page, but once we do, we develop a plan, we approve it, and then we try to stick to the plan. But special event permits are totally prone to changing on the fly. If some portable toilets on the field back up or stop working, maybe the beer cart would need to be moved—so it needs to be a live document at the same time. We try to lay out broad use conditions instead of saying, this needs to be here and only here.

You mentioned the nature of the crowds at Billy Joel and Metallica being very different. How does that affect your planning?

Over at the Coca-Cola Roxy concert hall, which is also located in The Battery, I’ve started to realize there’s a following to each genre. EDM, electronic dance music, has one crowd, and rock ‘n’ roll has another, and hip-hop and rap artists have another. Each crowd acts differently at the venue. For example, the Billy Joel crowd in April 2017 was a lot more passive than the July Metallica crowd, which had mosh pits and things like that. It’s not as challenging from the fire perspective, but it can be challenging from the EMS perspective. With the amount of drinking that can occur and with the heat in Atlanta in June and July, hydration is a big issue. The Braves have a private EMS service out there that handles events, but I would imagine for an EDM concert they might put out a free water station, whereas they might sell bottled water for a rock concert.

Are there challenges to planning non-concert events at and around the stadium?

Yes, administering any of the special event permits through NFPA 101 can be challenging. We’ve done over 100 of those to date. Recently, for example, Star Wars hosted a simulator for the new movie Solo at the stadium. NASA has put a replica Mars rover out on The Battery. As these unique sets of circumstances present themselves, it’s hard to try to fit them into the confines of the traditional prescriptive code. So we’re learning how to do that. Managing crowds this large has been a bit of a learning experience for us. But we remain positive and up for that challenge.

ANGELO VERZONI is staff writer for NFPA Journal. Top Photograph: ROBB COHEN/AP WIDE WORLD