Author(s): Angelo Verzoni. Published on March 2, 2021.

Safer Sets

New York City passes legislation to strengthen fire safety on movie and TV sets after fatal 2018 blaze


New York City has adopted new measures designed to improve fire safety on movie and television sets, part of a response to a fire that killed an FDNY firefighter.

In February, the New York City Council voted 46-0 to pass two bills—Introduction 1849 and Introduction 1852—that outline new safety measures production crews must take when filming in the city, such as designating an individual to serve as a production location fire safety manager and providing blueprints of production locations to the fire department.

The city council’s action follows the death of veteran FDNY firefighter Michael Davidson, who died of injuries he sustained fighting a 2018 fire on the set of a movie being filmed in Harlem. NFPA Journal reported on that blaze and the complexity of fire safety on movie and TV sets in “Ready for ‘action!’?” (May/June 2019).  

Experts say the legislation is an important step in addressing those complexities. “When you call the New York City Fire Department, we come no matter where the emergency is, but we need to know what we are walking into,” Bobby Eustace, vice president of the Uniformed Firefighters Association, a group that advocates for the health and safety of FDNY members, told CBS New York reporters in a recent interview. Eustace said the new regulations will give firefighters “a fighting chance” as they respond to fires on production locations, which can house complex configurations of furniture, fake walls, and prop materials.

Gregory Harrington, a principal engineer and staff liaison for the Technical Committee on Motion Picture and Television Industry at NFPA, said the legislation serves as an important step towards protecting not only emergency responders, but also actors and crew members from the dangers of fire in these environments. “Many fire hazards can exist on production sets, from electrical equipment to pyrotechnics and flame effects,” he said. “This bill will provide a higher level of safety to the many individuals who work at these locations or could find themselves responding to an emergency at one.”

‘Completely thrown off’

When FDNY responded to the March 22, 2018, blaze that took Davidson's life, they thought they were responding to a routine fire in the abandoned basement of a brownstone building. In reality, a movie production company had converted the basement into a set consisting of a maze of fake walls adorned with decorations containing highly combustible plastics. Officials say Davidson became separated from fellow firefighters and was likely disoriented trying to find his way out of the building. 

“You’re completely thrown off on a movie set,” Eustace said during an October meeting of the New York City Committee on Fire and Emergency Management. Eustace and other fire service members attended the meeting to speak in support of the two bills. “When you’re trained ... you’re always conscious of where your entries and exits are. In this particular building, things were padded up … [firefighters] on the outside who were trying to vent it were hitting walls because it was covered up by the movie set, in this case a stage. So everything is thrown off.” 

The eight city councilors who sponsored the bills, as well as the fire service members who supported them, hope the measures will lead to better communication between production crews and the fire service to prevent situations like the one that led to Davidson’s death. 

“One aspect of [Introduction 1849] we find particularly valuable is that it would require film productions to designate an individual to serve as the production location fire safety manager,” FDNY Chief John Sudnik said during the October committee meeting. “Productions will now have someone who will be responsible for periodically inspecting the location, ensuring that permits and other necessary approvals have been properly obtained, completing fire safety surveys, and that individual will provide the fire department with a point of contact to deal with when on site or responding to an emergency.”

Experts say that kind of designation could benefit productions that occur anywhere, and that aspects of the New York City measures could be adopted by jurisdictions nationwide. “No matter where filming is taking place, it’s critical for the local fire department to know what kinds of materials and equipment are being used on set, what the layout of that set is, and whether crews have changed the layout of an existing structure, as we saw happen with the tragedy in New York,” said Harrington. 

While movie and TV set fires are relatively uncommon—only about 10 occur each year, according to NFPA data—they have been a concern for decades, with media coverage of set fires dating back to at least the 1950s. Given the risk, it’s important for both production crews and authorities having jurisdiction (AHJs) to familiarize themselves with the resources that exist to prevent fires on sets, such as NFPA 140, Standard on Motion Picture and Television Production Studio Soundstages, Approved Production Facilities, and Production Locations

The standard outlines minimum requirements for design, construction, operation, and maintenance of sets and related equipment, said Harrington, the NFPA staff liaison to NFPA 140. “Compliance with its requirements, such as limitations on set scenery combustible, can help avert future tragedies like the one that claimed Michael Davidson’s life,” he said.

ANGELO VERZONI is staff writer for NFPA Journal. Follow him on Twitter @angelo_verzoni.