Still on Thin Ice?

Joe Louis Arena

Thirty years ago last month, Joe Louis Arena opened amid controversy regarding fire- and building-code violations documented exclusively by The Detroit News. Those violations remain to this day, most notably the steep banks of exterior stairs of the 20,000-seat arena.

The violations were brought to The News’ attention by the late Fred Morris, a building inspector for Detroit’s Department of Buildings and Safety Engineering. Morris reported the numerous violations and said that none of the Detroit building inspectors would sign the legally required Certificate of Occupancy. However, Mayor Coleman A. Young ordered the arena opened without the certificate, and the University of Michigan played the University of Detroit in a collegiate basketball game in the still-under-construction venue.

Before that game, News editors hired J.L. Pauls, an architect and code expert for the National Research Council of Canada, to inspect the arena. He reported: “The exterior stairs are the worst I’ve seen for a public-assembly facility. They’re an invitation to disaster.”

When Joe Louis was designed and built, Ilitch Holdings wasn’t involved with the Detroit Red Wings, Joe Louis Arena, or what was then known as Olympia Stadium Corp., says Karen Cullen, Ilitch Holdings spokesperson. “The Red Wings were purchased in 1982, and shortly thereafter, Olympia Stadium Corp. was acquired, as well as Olympia’s lease with the City of Detroit for Joe Louis Arena,” Cullen says. “Since that time, the Joe Louis Arena has been continually maintained consistent with the obligations under the terms of the lease. The safety and security of fans, patrons, and customers, along with their overall customer satisfaction, is of the utmost importance to our organization.”

Pauls, now a private safety consultant in Silver Spring, Md., sits on every major safety-code organization in the country, and is considered the top stair-safety expert in North America.

In 30 years, there hasn’t been a “disaster.” Would you change your original assessment?

Not significantly. By this, I mean that understanding of, and evidence about, the dangers of key defects in the Joe Louis Arena have increased since December 1979. For example, regarding the steepness of stairs, or more correctly the combination of height of stair risers and depth of stair treads, is now much better understood than in 1979. Code-permitted steepness of stairs … has been greatly reduced based on much stair-safety research done over the last few decades.

Today, a stair with a step rise of 7-1/2 inches with a tread depth of only 9-1/2 inches would not even be permitted for new-home stairs under the national model building codes used in the U.S.

Building code rules for new stairs for all other buildings built in the region, including Detroit, since the mid-1980s limit step rise to 7 inches and require a minimum tread depth of 11 inches. (In terms of stair pitch or slope, the Joe Louis Arena’s exterior stairs are approximately 38 degrees. Under building codes since the mid 1980s, it would be no more than 33 degrees.)

In 1979, I already knew, from research published in 1974, that at least 11 inches of tread depth was the minimum for safety. In 1979, I also knew that the most widely used building safety standard, the National Fire Protection Association Life Safety Code, (for which I served — and continue to serve — on its Means of Egress Committee) required at least 10 inches and that a decision had already been made to increase that to a minimum of 11 inches.

From the latest research … we now know that the chance of a fall on a stair with only a 9-1/2-inch deep tread is about four times greater than on a stair with an 11-inch tread depth. … In the U.S. currently, the medical treatment costs alone from individual, stair-related falls is about $10 billion per year. About 90 percent of those falls occur on stairs with tread depths comparable to those at the Joe Louis Arena.  Thus, the stairs remain an “invitation to disaster.”

In 1979, the Detroit Fire Marshal, the Director of the Department of Buildings & Safety Engineering, and the architect — the SmithGroup — said the stairs and interior crowd ingress/egress plan met all applicable codes, including the NFPA Life Safety Code and the BOCA Building Code. What was wrong with their approval then, and what would the applicable codes require today?

For one thing, code rules address more than just step steepness. Uniformity of step dimensions has always been an important factor in stair safety and in code requirements.  … The interior-aisle stairs of the Joe Louis Arena were both badly designed — with larger deviations designed into the step configurations — and constructed. So, in terms of this crucially important code requirement, addressing the most potent of all stair safety factors — consistent dimensions — the Joe Louis stairs fail badly. [You don’t] even have to measure them to see that they’re unreasonably inconsistent, especially in the middle of the aisles where people are most likely to walk. Such dimensional inconsistencies increase the risk of falls by factors of 10 to 100.

Were you surprised that The News reported in 1990 that 189 lawsuits had been filed at that point against the city and the Red Wings by injured patrons?

No. The problems of the interior-aisle stairs alone could be responsible for many fall-related injuries to patrons. … I would say the Joe Louis poses about 1 to 100 times more risk of stair-related falls.

[In an emergency evacuation] … underfoot dangers, such as from irregular or undersized stair treads, greatly increase the risk of mass-casualty incidents.

There are no inside railings for the vertical stairs and aisles inside Joe Louis Arena. What do codes require today?

In 1978, I headed up a major field study of aisle-stair handrails, installed in the middle of the aisles of a large stadium in Edmonton, [Alberta] Canada. The handrails had breaks every three to five rows to permit people to cross from one side to the other. They worked well and were very heavily used.

During the 1980s, this resulted in all of the U.S. model building codes … adding requirements for installation of such handrails on all aisle stairs of new buildings.

What should be done with the Joe Louis exterior stairs today? If concrete ramps are used, should they be protected from the weather?

I have not seen the outside stairs in many years, so I can’t provide advice as to how extensive the remedial measures should be. In 1990, there was evidence of severe deterioration. Complete redesign might be prudent. As for ramps, they should be protected from the weather [as should be the stairs].

You mentioned the risk level at Joe Louis Arena with 20,000 patrons climbing or using the banks of six exterior stairs for every hockey game. This doesn’t include the millions of visitors who used Joe Louis Arena for other events. What’s the formula for determining an arena’s risk level?

I would add that today — in a post 9/11 era — we have much more to worry about in large facilities for public assembly. Again, I would stress reliance on NFPA standards. [Also], there have been major changes in people’s fitness in recent years that could drastically affect things like stairway safety and egress performance. We should not design for people as they were in the 1970s. They are much more prone now to falls and injuries. They are less able to respond quickly and safely in an emergency evacuation.

Mleczko, a Grosse Pointe Park-based freelancer, was the reporter who wrote the exclusive reports for The Detroit News in 1979. E-mail: