NFPA Fact Sheet Outlines Fire And Life Safety For Restaurants, Others Using Tents

Across the U.S., tent and other membrane structures have been set up for outdoor dining and other customer service. Here's what you need to know to help keep these spaces safe.

As states continue working to find ways to safely re-open, many jurisdictions have allowed the use of tents among restaurants and other businesses. In response, the National Fire Protection Association (NFPA) has released a new fact sheet, “Building and Life Safety for Tents,” which provides guidance to code officials, business owners, and facility management, helping ensure that tents are being used properly and safely.

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“Because tents are temporary structures, it may be assumed that precautions for fire protection and life safety aren’t needed,” said Shawn Mahoney, a technical services engineer at NFPA. “However, particularly given today’s environment and circumstances, these provisions are more important than ever.”

NFPA’s Building and Life Safety for Tents fact sheet (July 2020)

When erecting a tent or membrane structure, multiple safety precautions must be followed. Mahoney says that any restaurant, business, or other group planning to use a tent must contact the authority having jurisdiction (AHJ) and that all applicable requirements should be followed; all plans for tent usage should be reviewed by a qualified person.

NFPA 101®, Life Safety Code®, and NFPA 1, Fire Code, contain requirements that address the use of tents and membrane structures, including a provision stating that tents can only be used on a temporary basis and should not be erected for more than 180 days. In addition, the means of egress must comply with the requirements for the occupancy of the tent. Additional egress features should include exit markings and emergency lighting within the tent, along with measures to ensure that exits from the tent cannot be blocked.

From the new NFPA “Building and Life Safety for Tents” fact sheet, regarding Location and Placement:

  • Tent location must be approved by the AHJ, who could be the local building department or fire department official in charge of inspecting and approving the use of the structure.
  • Special consideration should be given to ensure that the tent:
  • Does not block fire department access
  • Is not located too close to other buildings or lot lines
  • Does not block the means of egress from other buildings
  • Has at least a 10 ft (3 m) distance around the tent that is free of combustible material
  • Is a distance of at least 10 ft (3 m) between stake lines of multiple tents to provide means of egress from the tents

Mahoney points to the Hartford Circus fire in 1944, an historical deadly fire that was the foundation for many safety requirements in place today. In this incident, a fire broke out in the circus tent and spread rapidly due to the combustible canvas, killing 168 people and injuring over 500 more. The occupants within the tent were unable to evacuate in time due to the limited means of egress, which were not properly maintained.

“One of the biggest concerns with a tent, also demonstrated during the Hartford Circus fire, is the flammability of the tent fabric,” said Mahoney. Both NFPA 1 and NFPA 101 require that tent material meets the flame propagation performance requirements of NFPA 701, Standard Methods of Fire Tests for Flame Propagation of Textiles and Films. This is a test performed on the fabric of the tent by a testing organization, which will issue a certificate if the fabric has passed the test.

Click here to access NFPA’s new tent fact sheet, which addresses these and other associated requirements and considerations. Other up-to-date information from NFPA regarding fire and life safety in the midst of COVID-19 can be found at

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