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Tragedies force nationwide rethink of fire, safety codes

After last week's nightclub tragedies, fire regulations and enforcement get an overhaul.

By Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / February 28, 2003



Last week's twin nightclub tragedies have prompted one of the biggest nationwide reexaminations of fire codes since 1977, when the Beverly Hills Supper Club fire in Southgate, Ky., killed 164 people.

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This week the National Fire Protection Association (NFPA) announced an immediate meeting of 30 code writers, an unusual step that could change the basic standards for public assembly. Among the issues they'll review are exit arrangements, sprinkler requirements, when to apply codes retroactively, and what decorations are permissible.

Meanwhile, fire departments from Maine to Oregon are rethinking their fire codes and how they enforce them:

• The Philadelphia fire department is considering readopting the practice of "dumping the club" when a night spot seems overcrowded - evacuating everyone and counting them as they go back in. "That's much more effective than writing a ticket," says Capt. Tom Donovan of the fire-code unit.

• In Chicago, where officials have been criticized for failing to enforce a court order to close the E2 club last July, the fire department has added more weekend- inspection teams to conduct spot-checks on clubs. Last weekend they closed one club for serious overcrowding.

• In Maine, Fire Marshal John Dean issued a moratorium on all pyrotechnic shows until the codes are reviewed. Massachusetts mobilized a task force to begin immediate spot checks of every club in the state and Connecticut has called for a review of state fire codes.

"Unfortunately, it takes a terrible tragedy to get awareness out there," says Robert Solomon, who works on building and life-safety codes for the NFPA. Now, "we have an unprecedented opportunity before us."

So far, the issues that have arisen in the stampede at Chicago's E2 nightclub and the fire at The Station are familiar ones. Locked exits. Overcrowding. Highly flammable material. No clear exit sign or emergency plan. They're the same problems, say experts, that have occurred countless times, from the Triangle Shirtwaist factory in 1911 to the Happy Land social club in 1990.

Still, some of the potential changes are purely technical. When to require sprinklers in buildings that didn't need them when they were built, for instance. Owners often lobby against such measures since they can be expensive. "The constant struggle between cost and safety is always there," says David Lucht, director of the Center for Fire Safety Studies at Worcester Polytechnic Institute.

Yet many say existing codes aren't the real issue. It's the difficulty of enforcing them.

Capt. Dean, for instance, is fairly confident that Maine has good pyrotechnic laws. But two days before fireworks by the band Great White set a nightclub on fire in West Warwick, R.I., a fire official in Bangor was told the musicians weren't planning to use pyrotechnics. Later that night, the band set them off.

"There's no way to stop somebody who wants to do something illegal," Dean says.

That's true of some club managers across the US who turn off exit signs because they spoil the ambience, or lock doors so no one can sneak in. In Philadelphia, says Captain Donovan, some owners laugh at the city's fine of $100 for a locked exit. "They say, 'that's lunch money to me. I'm not going to unlock that door.' "

Indeed there's a constant tension between safety and greed, says Paul Wertheimer, president of Crowd Management Strategies consulting firm in Chicago. Clubs that flout rules should be shut down just like restaurants with too many cockroaches in them, he says.

Others feel that a fundamental change in public opinion is needed to affect a longer-term solution.

"When I was younger, driving after drinking wasn't the big deal it is today," says Mr. Lucht. "I'd like to see our culture [on building safety] shift to - 'I'm mad this building is a fire trap in my community, and I'd like to see law enforcement hold someone accountable."

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