How does the Fire Marshal Determine the Maximum Occupancy of Rooms?

Malcolm Tatum
Malcolm Tatum

Most people have noticed when dining in a restaurant or staying in a hotel room, that there is a maximum occupancy limit for the space. This is usually quoted as being ordered by a fire marshal. Just what goes into determining the maximum occupancy of a room? Are there formulas or guidelines that all fire marshals use to determine room occupancy? Here are a few facts about what goes into determining maximum occupancy for any space.

Occupancy limitations are placed on a variety locations, such as hotel rooms, restaurants and theaters.
Occupancy limitations are placed on a variety locations, such as hotel rooms, restaurants and theaters.

There are a number of factors that go into determining the maximum occupancy of the space. One of the most obvious is the size of the enclosed space. This will include consideration of the available floor space, as well as the height of the ceiling. It is important to keep in mind that it is not just a matter of using the measurements of a room. Such factors as the placing of permanent columns, large pieces of furniture that are not likely to be moved, and any built in areas such as counter tops and cabinets will make an impact on what is considered available floor space. The final maximum occupancy ordered by the fire marshal will include all these types of considerations, making sure there is never too many people in the room that getting out of the space in an emergency would prove impossible.

The number of available exits is a factor in determining a space's maximum occupancy.
The number of available exits is a factor in determining a space's maximum occupancy.

Another important factor to consider with maximum occupancy is the number and placement of exits from the space. Having more than one possible exit will make a big difference in the maximum occupancy, assuming that each of the possible exits could in fact be used easily. For example, windows on the second floor, while a way out of the space, would not be considered and easy exit from the space.

The intended purpose of the space will also impact the maximum occupancy that is allowed in the area. Factors will vary from a general dining room to a theater to a hotel bedroom. While some of those factors are rather fine points, fire marshals understand how important it is to take into consideration the purpose for the space and how it is related to safety issues.

One general rule of thumb in determining maximum occupancy is a simple formula of multiplying the room’s width in feet by the length in feet. The answer can then be divided by thirty-six to arrive at a basic occupancy figure. Keep in mind this approach simply sets the stage for the consideration of other factors and is not necessarily a firm and final maximum occupancy. Only the fire marshal will be able to quickly identify other factors and determine a maximum occupancy that is both equitable and safe.

The size of a location helps determine its maximum occupancy.
The size of a location helps determine its maximum occupancy.
Malcolm Tatum
Malcolm Tatum

After many years in the teleconferencing industry, Michael decided to embrace his passion for trivia, research, and writing by becoming a full-time freelance writer. Since then, he has contributed articles to a variety of print and online publications, including wiseGEEK, and his work has also appeared in poetry collections, devotional anthologies, and several newspapers. Malcolm’s other interests include collecting vinyl records, minor league baseball, and cycling.

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Discussion Comments


Most all of the answers to the comments are in the Building and Fire Codes. They are formulas based on each of the different types of Occupancies. That is the logical and true answer. Get the code. Calculate the "Occupancy" count for the specific Occupancy Use.


A public dining room has a posted maximum occupancy of 216. About 50 percent of the customers depend on walkers or electric wheel chairs. The dining area has three exits, often blocked by parked walkers. How should the occupancy be decreased to account for this situation?


What is the formula for residential buildings, or is there one?


In a restaurant where the occupancy that is posted, is that number supposed to include servers, host/hostess, etc., or just the number of patrons allowed?


What is the formula for how many restrooms per square feet of office space?


If I think my fire marshal is low balling me. Can I get a second opinion?


We have a commercial property with a posed code size of 180 occupancy, we are looking to hold an even that will play our attendance around 225.

We have two aisles for egress on either side of the middle row. We have an exit door in the auditorium in the from left of platform and an exit double door, with push panic exit bars, to the rear of the facility. Also currently we seat comfortable 199 each week. Is it OK to hold our event knowing we will be about 25 people over the code?


I wonder if schools, with budget cuts and increased class size, are compliant with occupancy levels. I know of classrooms that are so packed with students the teacher cannot freely/easily walk around the classroom. How could that be safe during a fire?


When I studied theatre design and construction in college, we were taught that there are many considerations about how an audience might exit during a fire that might not seem obvious. Things like whether or not the stairs' construction involves a hand rail, for example, affect whether or not a doorway to outside can be safe. Additionally, there are limits to how many people can sit together in a row without an aisle separating them, as well as what constitutes a truly safe exit for handicapped patrons. It is also important that any performance space, especially a small one, have some sort of maximum occupancy sign, or at least that staff running the house are aware of these limits.


Where did you get the number 36 for general rule of thumb?

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