Task force inspects nightspots for violations

Deadly incidents in R.I., Chicago prompt visits

April 15, 2003|By Jason Song | Jason Song,SUN STAFF

Howard County authorities have formed a task force to look for safety violations in local bars and nightclubs, some of which have not been inspected for nearly five years.

The group, consisting of firefighters and employees from the county's Department of Inspections, Licensing and Permits, was created shortly after the nightclub accidents in Chicago and Rhode Island in February.

While Howard County is not a hotbed of after-hours entertainment, the incidents prodded authorities, especially when they realized that they had not inspected some nightspots for years, said Deputy Chief Kevin J. Simmons of the county's Department of Fire and Rescue Services.

"It opened our eyes that disasters could happen anywhere. There was an urgency to ensure the safety of the citizens of Howard County," he said. "The potential [for disaster] is there."

The group has identified 24 nightspots with drinking, dancing and live music that are "critical," Simmons said. Inspectors have visited all of the businesses at least once during the day and once at night.

While the task force has found problems, most are relatively minor and no business owners have been fined or cited, Simmons said.

But Howard authorities say such inspections are necessary after the recent nightclub disasters in other parts of the country. Almost 100 people died Feb. 20 when a nightclub in West Warwick, R.I., caught fire during a Great White performance. Investigators and witnesses say the band's pyrotechnics caused the fire.

In Chicago, 21 people died during a stampede at a nightspot Feb. 17. Authorities say the crowd exceeded the nightclub's capacity.

While a few of the clubs in Howard County had improper soundproofing that was immediately removed, most of the violations are minor: missing ceiling tiles, too many electrical outlets, poorly lighted exit signs.

"You could go in anyone's home and find the same things," said Lt. Mike Walker, who often handles the day inspections.

Inspectors give offenders a written notice to fix problems within seven to 10 days and they return to check.

"Compliance has been real good," said Walker shortly after he inspected Last Chance Saloon in Oakland Mills.

During the first inspection, the restaurant had 11 citations for minor infractions, such as having too many extension cords. When Walker did his follow up inspection, he found no violations.

Simmons and Lt. Jeffery Shilling visited La Palapa Grill on Main Street in Ellicott City on a recent Saturday night. A visibly flustered Gigi Thompson, the restaurant manager, escorted Simmons and Shilling around the crowded restaurant, dodging patrons and waiters carrying trays of salsa and chips.

Simmons and Shilling inspected the restaurant's exit signs, electrical wiring and kitchen facilities before declaring the restaurant problem-free, much to the relief of Thompson.

"We have a handyman who checks everything," she said. "It's important to keep things safe."

Authorities say such visits are typical and most county nightspots are safe, although they plan to continue searching.

"I always ask myself if I was to go out for a night with my family, would I feel comfortable here?" asked Walker. "And at most of these places is, the answer would be yes."

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