Written By: Prince William County Fire Marshal
Haunted houses are a traditional way to celebrate the Halloween season. Often businesses and organizations wish to design, construct and operate their own haunted houses. Unfortunately, many do so without a proper understanding of the risks of these ventures and without the proper knowledge of the Virginia Statewide Fire Prevention Code (VSFPC) and other applicable state and County regulations.
The Virginia Statewide Fire Prevention Code imposes strict regulations on the design, construction and operation of haunted houses. Haunted houses are specifically designed to confuse, distract and disorient participants in order to achieve a frightening experience. Unfortunately, this goes completely against the purpose of the Fire Code, which is to make exits clear and easy to find even during emergencies that could cause confusion.
Haunted houses can be held in buildings or tents. Haunted trails generally take place outdoors in fields or woods. It is much easier to comply with the VSFPC when constructing a haunted trail than a haunted house due to a trail being outside the confines of a building or space. Once a haunted house is placed in a building, the “use group” of that building changes to a Special Amusement Building.
The following is the definition of a Special Amusement Building as defined in the 2012 Virginia Statewide Fire Prevention Code:
Special Amusement Building: 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 or structure. (2012 VSFPC Chap. 2 Definitions)
The Code regarding Special Amusement Buildings mandates many strict requirements. Special Amusement Buildings require fire alarms and sprinkler systems. The Code also requires that all lighting, sound and visual effects are tied together so that, in the case of alarm activation, the lights come on and the effects go off. Special Amusement Buildings also require a built-in public address system that will automatically produce a prerecorded message that instructs patrons to proceed to the nearest fire exit. There are no exceptions to these requirements.
If you are interested in constructing a haunted house or fun house and you are capable of meeting the requirements of a Special Amusement Building, there are a number of steps that must be taken.
You must apply for a Temporary Activity Permit issued by the Prince William County Zoning Administration Division. There is a fee associated with these permits and the fee is non-refundable. You may obtain an application at www.pwcgov.org/zoning or contact the Zoning Office located in Suite 180 at 5 County Complex Court, Woodbridge, VA 22192, telephone number 703-792-7615.
You must meet the applicable code requirements of the following agencies for permit approval:
The Department of Finance
The Health Department
The Department of Transportation
The Department of Development Services
The Police Department
The Fire Marshal’s Office
Specific Fire Marshal’s Office requirements:
You must meet the requirements of a Special Amusement Building unless you are conducting the activity outdoors or with the approved tent inspection conducted by both the Fire Marshal’s Office and the Building Department. If a tent is to be used, a separate tent permit may be required. All tent usage shall meet the requirements set forth by Chapter 24 of the VSFPC.
You must provide a floor plan of all areas intended to be used in the event including all exits, exit routes, exit route distances, locations of portable power equipment, proposed decorative materials and furnishings, etc.
You must provide an emergency evacuation plan and fire safety plan as required by Section 404 of the VSFPC.
The building must have a current and compliant Fire Safety Inspection including current fire protection system test/inspection records.
All decorative materials shall meet the requirements set forth in Chapter 8 of the VSFPC.
An inspection of the activity area is to be completed by the Fire Marshal’s Office after setup is complete but before the activity is scheduled to begin. Please contact the Fire Marshal’s Office for assistance.
Violation of these requirements constitutes a Class 1 misdemeanor, punishable by up to one year in jail and/or a $2,500 fine per day per violation.
The Prince William County Fire Marshal’s Office is committed to ensuring the safety of its citizens during this season by providing insight to those organizations wishing to design, construct and operate a haunted house. We believe that our citizens can have a great time and do it safely.