Paying the Tab for a Safer Nightlife
Experts call for adding fire inspectors, improving their competency, and enlisting engine companies to achieve regular, quality inspections of nightclubs and similar public assembly properties
by Bill Flynn
"Most fire districts need more fire inspectors, and the level of competency in doing inspections needs to improve," says Minneapolis Deputy Fire Chief Thomas Deegan, talking specifically about inspections of nightclubs, restaurants, and similar public assembly properties. "Each improvement in codes needs to be followed by the political will to provide the financial resources to make sure they are implemented."
In Minneapolis, Minnesota, fire inspectors base inspections on information from a joint program involving the city's police and fire departments. The program's effectiveness is most evident in the city's sprawling Warehouse Nightclub District, a 30-block area containing 144 barrooms, nightclubs, restaurants, and theaters.
Since 2000, an Entertainment Task Force has dealt with the growing number of criminal problems in the area. Initially, the program was limited to two-man police teams looking for criminal violations, such as underage drinking, illegal service of intoxicated customers, and drug dealing. The teams' work brought quick results: between 2001 and 2003, the number of citations the task force issued for underage drinking dropped from 77 to 47.
"But if we tagged someone for serving (alcohol) to a minor, it's usually because they were so over-capacity and swamped at the door and weren't (checking identifications) thoroughly," says Luther Krueger, a crime prevention specialist and chair of the task force.
Soon, however, the police realized they weren't dealing with issues involving the fire code. If the nightclubs and bars addressed fire code issues, says Krueger, it would have a positive affect on issues that are more in the purview of the police. Clearly, he says, the fire department needed to be part of the task force.
"They asked us to join the task force," says Deegan, who attends all task force meetings in his role as the city's fire marshal.
Firefighters don't accompany the police patrols, but police teams that encounter code issues refer the information to Deegan's office, usually by e-mail. Deegan then dispatches an inspector, usually within 24 hours, to check out the police tip.
Deegan occasionally brings fire inspectors with him to task force meetings to talk about real-life situations. And he always listens to the problems and complaints of nightclub owners before explaining why they must comply with the fire code.
"I believe that my most important contribution to these meetings is to educate the owners about the need to adhere to the fire code," Deegan says. "When you demonstrate to them how it's in their best interest to follow the code, most of them see the light."
He also stresses the need to develop a workable emergency evacuation plan for employees. Bar and nightclub owners were initially hesitant about speaking openly, Deegan says.
"But when they realized we weren't trying to entrap them, they opened up a bit, and now our relationship now is much more cooperative," he says.
Tony Harris agrees. Harris is chief operating officer of The Quest nightclub, one of the biggest clubs in Minneapolis.
"We have a good relationship with the police and fire departments," Harris says. "It's not in our interest to tolerate situations that could get us cited, so we emphasize safety issues to our staff on a constant basis."
The two-room Quest has a capacity of 2,150 people. The bigger room can hold 1,650 people, and the smaller room can hold 500 people.
"We have professional security throughout the building, and all our staff, from servers to bartenders to bar backs, are trained in safety and evacuation procedures," Harris says. "We have someone who makes sure all the fire extinguishers are working. We're fully sprinklered and have a public address system that automatically shuts off the music throughout the building whenever it's activated for emergency purposes."
Hand in glove
"Although we work for the police department, we work hand in glove with the fire department on issues involving violations of the fire code," Krueger says. "These club owners know that, on a moment's notice, we could walk in here with a fire inspector or the fire marshal."
A brief conversation is usually all that's needed to fix a fire code violation, such as a blocked exit.
"It's better that way, because they don't want to see one of my inspectors or me walk into their building," Deegan says.
The efficacy of the program was evident on February 17, 2003, the night a fire broke out at the Fine Line Music Café. The building sustained significant damage, but none of the 120 customers in the building were injured. This was the same night 21 people died in Chicago's E2 Club's crowd crush incident.
"In that incident, the crowd had the typical mentality that all crowds do," Deegan says. "They reason, 'That's the way I came in, so that's the way I'm going out.' But the difference in this fire, and the reason no one was injured, was a trained staff at The Fine Line."
The club's staff was familiar with emergency procedures, and several of the staff members had been trained in effective crowd control, Deegan says. In addition, the building had fire sprinklers, although they weren't required.
However, Deegan is concerned that elected officials often lack the political will to give fire departments the support they need to conduct comprehensive fire inspection programs.
"Fire prevention and education, although an inexpensive aspect of an overall fire budget, is usually the first thing that gets cut," Deegan says.
"It has become a difficult job and it takes an intelligent person with an enormous amount of knowledge to be effective," he says. "If everyone followed NFPA standards on certification for inspection and the politicians allowed us to do the things we should be doing, I think you'd see a significant improvement."
Inspections during peak hours
Phoenix, Arizona, Fire Marshal Barbara Koffron echoes Deegan's concern about financial resources. Urban communities need more frequent and comprehensive fire inspections, especially in public assembly occupancies, she says.
"It makes sense that inspections be performed when these businesses (nightclubs) are at full operation, but that means nighttime inspections, which cost money that I don't have," says Koffron, who is chair of NFPA's Correlating Committee for Professional Qualifications for the Fire Service. The Phoenix Fire Department employs 11 fire inspectors to do review plans and occupancy permits, and inspect existing buildings.
Ron Farr, the fire chief and fire marshal for Kalamazoo Township, Michigan, considers inspecting public assembly occupancies during peak hours of operation essential. Farr also is the co-author of the fire prevention and code enforcement chapter in the NFPA's Fire Prevention Handbook.
"You may have to do some modification in their employment hours, but you have to get code enforcement people into these buildings when their peak occupancies are occurring," Farr says. Often, he says, business owners don't even realize that they are violating the code. He offered an example.
"We got a complaint that a bar was habitually overcrowded, so we went in unannounced," Farr says. "The manager told us that they absolutely weren't overcrowded, so we counted heads with him. They were way over capacity, but he legitimately didn't realize it because this amount of crowding had become commonplace to him and his staff. We also pointed out exit doors that had been blocked by his customers so they could dance. He turned to me and said, 'I guess I understand now what you are saying.' We've never had a problem with him again."
Last spring Farr conducted a training program for owners and/or managers of public assembly facilities, discussing basic issues such as crowd control, maintenance of life safety issues, and evacuation procedures. Those in attendance came from facilities ranging in size from Miller Auditorium on the campus of Western Michigan University to small "mom and pop" type operations.
"We talked about the things they need to look for. There were about 100 people, and many acknowledged they had never thought of some of the basics, such as making sure all exits are clear or where the secondary means of egress are," Farr says.
Back to the basics
NFPA's Steven Sawyer believes fire inspections need to return to the basics. Sawyer, NFPA's Executive Secretary of the International Fire Marshals Association, says that, after the Rhode Island and Chicago nightclub incidents in February 2003, many fire departments began to put "great emphasis" on inspecting public assembly occupancies.
"But I think it made everybody start to look at their training, the type of inspections they do and the frequency with which they are done," Sawyer says. "It's evolutionary, but sometimes you get so specialized that you don't pay enough attention to the basics of inspection."
Sawyer thinks the trend in fire inspections will be to return to the basics.
"And that comes with an emphasis on quality instead of quantity. Instead of trying to get 15 done in one day, inspectors should be doing fewer, but better-quality inspections," he says. They also need to include ample time for follow-up inspections.
Due to the limited staffing of the fire prevention offices, Sawyer also believes that fire departments need to get more fire companies involved in simple inspections.
"Relatively simple fire inspections can be done by engine companies," Sawyer says. "If they encounter complex issues, a fire inspector can be called in."
Thirty years ago, NFPA teamed with the Urban Institute on a major national study of fire-code inspections and what makes them effective.
"The most important factor was getting to every place at least once a year, and there was no close second," says John Hall, NFPA assistant vice-president of Fire Analysis and Research and head of the study. "You can't compensate for coverage gaps with higher quality in the inspections you do. And that means inspections by engine companies aren't just a good idea. They're essential to success."
Sawyer also laments the tendency among municipalities to reduce or eliminate the fire prevention budget in tough economic times.
"Prevention is the cheapest aspect of the whole fire protection package for the community," he says. "It is cheaper to prevent fires that it is to suppress them. But if cuts are going through, they are never going to cut response."
Not doing fire inspections regularly can lead to problems, Sawyer says.
"If people don't see you on a regular basis, they get lax in their fire safety issues. When you're there regularly (to do inspections) you're also educating them," he notes.
Frank Florence, staff liaison for NFPA 1031, Professional Qualifications for Fire Inspector and Plan Examiner, believes now is the time for local fire departments to work hard to expand their fire prevention capability.
Because of The Station nightclub fire and the E2 crowd crush incident, "the public is much more aware of the hazards in public assembly buildings, such as overcrowding or lack of exits," Florence says. "The public drives the political realities, so, yes, right now, it's very important that these issues are discussed and support is generated to do more and better fire inspections and plan reviews."
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Proposed cuts in FIRE and state homeland security grants appear to be a shift to population-based risk assessment
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Paying the Tab for a Safer Nightlife: Experts call for adding fire inspectors, improving their competency, and enlisting engine companies to achieve quality inspections of nightclubs.