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Stadium and Arena Design
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Issue 77: Stadium and Arena Design

By Kevin Morin, P.E.

As the architectural and engineering designs of stadiums and arenas have evolved, so too have the challenges for the fire protection engineer.   Stadiums and arenas are no longer used only for participant sporting events and concerts.  These facilities have become destination locations and now cater to year-round use, with restaurant facilities, banquet halls and conference capabilities.  The new hazards associated with these uses must be addressed by the design team and the fire protection engineer, in addition to the traditional hazards associated with large assembly uses in a building with non-traditional fuel loads.  

The popular multi-use sports facility of the 1960s and 1970s, intended to accommodate multiple sporting events such as baseball and football, have largely been replaced by sport-specific facilities.  These sport-specific facilities have modern amenities that are designed to attract non-sports uses.  The amenity spaces include outdoor terrace areas, luxury club and suite spaces, lecture halls and "sponsor” rooms.  Events range from private events, such as weddings, to job fairs, guest lectures and corporate events.  Most, if not all, of these events are on non-game days when building staff is limited. 

Stadium and arena designs must comply with the applicable fire protection and life safety requirements when the building is fully-occupied and fully-staffed for major sporting and concert events.  However, it is important that the designs also comply during "non-game day” events when the facility is not fully-staffed, and some portions of the facility may be unavailable to the public. 

It is necessary for the fire protection engineer to understand the intended uses and the flexibility required for non-game day events.  Following are some of the elements that should be considered.

Egress Availability

Club and suite levels are desirable locations for non-game day events.  These spaces are often designed with means of egress through the seating bowl or the public concourses.  For security reasons, on non-game days, access to portions of the seating bowl and the concourses may be restricted.  The required number of exits, exit capacity and egress travel distance limitations must continue to be satisfied with the available exits.  In addition, the exit discharge to the exterior and the public way must have unrestricted access. 

Smoke-Protected Assembly Seating

The smoke-protected assembly seating provisions of the model codes are typically used in the design of stadiums and arenas.  The smoke-protected assembly seating provisions are a design option that permits reduced exit capacity factors and increased exit travel distances provided that the means of egress are protected accordingly.  The smoke control systems must be designed to maintain the smoke level at least 6 feet (1.8 m) above the means of egress. 

When using the smoke-protected assembly seating provisions, a life safety evaluation must be completed.  This includes a written assessment of, among other things, the nature of the events and the participants and attendees, fire hazards, and the relationships among facility management, event participants, and emergency response agencies. 

Complex smoke control systems are often critical components of achieving compliance with the smoke-protected assembly seating provisions.  The smoke control systems rely on strategic locations for smoke exhaust and make-up air.  Temporary partitions, restricted doors or changes to fuel loads can alter the performance of the smoke control system and result in a space that no longer complies with the provisions for smoke-protected assembly seating. 

All potential events, fuel loads and security restrictions should be considered when designing the smoke control systems for spaces that may be used for non-game events.  Communication between the stadium operators and the design team is necessary to identify the non-game events are must be accommodated in the design.

Structural Fire Protection

In many buildings, structural fire protection is provided as required by building codes without further analysis.  Due to the size and nature of stadiums, structural fire protection is often designed based on engineering analyses of the anticipated fire exposures.  The fuel load present during sporting events is typically considered, since that is the primary use of the building.  However, the fuel load brought into the building for other events may pose a more severe exposure to the structure.  Thus, the fire protection engineer should work closely with the building operator to understand the fuel loads that may be introduced into the building and to communicate any limitations on the uses within the building.

Sprinkler Protection

When selecting the hazard classification for the design of the sprinkler systems, all potential non-game day events must be considered.  A game day event with limited combustible materials on the concourses may be different than a corporate event, wedding, or convention with a more significant fuel load.  In addition, sprinkler protection is sometimes omitted from outdoor stadium concourses due to the limited fuel load and the opportunities for the natural ventilation of smoke and heat.  This may not be the case for special events which introduce combustible materials or temporary enclosures. 

Occupant Notification

Due to the large volume of stadiums and arenas, public address systems are often used as the audible portion of occupant notification in select areas of the facility.  This may include concourse areas and amenity spaces, such as club and suite areas.  On non-game day events, the public address system may not be staffed or even energized, which compromises the ability to notify the occupants of the building of an event. 

In addition, to avoid an unnecessary full building evacuation, a positive alarm sequence is often used in stadiums and arenas.  Positive alarm sequence permits acknowledgement of an alarm and an investigation period of up to 180 seconds before an alarm signal is initiated.  Although this may be appropriate during a game day event, this may not be appropriate for a non-game day event.  Sufficient staff may not be available to adequately investigate the alarm, causing an unnecessary delay in occupant notification. 


Facility staff are critical for the fire protection and life safety of building occupants during game day events.  The facility staff have operational protocols for crowd control, security, way-finding, systems monitoring, and often times they have the only access to manual pull stations and fire extinguishers.  A stadium or arena is not likely to be fully-staffed for non-game events, which requires modifications to the emergency operations procedures that are developed for game-day events.   

As with all multi-use buildings, the fire protection engineer must contemplate all reasonable uses of the spaces within the building when considering the fire protection and life safety systems.  This has become increasingly important with stadium and arena facilities as new amenities are introduced and facilities look to capitalize on year-round use.  Care must be taken to adequately address how the facility functions during a non-game event for system performance and from a staffing perspective.  

Kevin Morin is with Code Consultants Professional Engineers, PC

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