Distant tragedy prompts update to local fire code

Regulations reviewed in wake of 2003 blaze at Rhode Island club

Howard County

September 19, 2004|By Gus G. Sentementes | Gus G. Sentementes,SUN STAFF

After a devastating fire killed 100 people last year at The Station, a nightclub in Rhode Island, fire officials around the country asked themselves whether such a tragedy could happen under their watch.

Some localities have acted more quickly than others.

In Howard County, Deputy Chief Kevin Simmons reviewed the local fire code, which hadn't been touched since 1992. With help from staff members and consultants, Simmons tightened the code, supervising the addition of stringent regulations such as a requirement that bars and nightclubs with a capacity of more than 100 people install automatic sprinklers. That high standard has yet to become the norm across the country.

"The Station fire has influenced this code and many codes across the country," Simmons said. "We want to make sure citizens have a nice, fire-safe place to work, to play or to visit in our county."

The fire at The Station nightclub in West Warwick, R.I., started when the rock band Great White's pyrotechnics display ignited the cramped nightclub, which lacked sprinklers.

Days earlier, 21 people had died in a Chicago nightclub after someone sprayed Mace and caused a stampede. After those two incidents, the potential for danger in such small, crowded spaces riveted the country's attention.

"Up until the Rhode Island fire, there had been an assumption that these small facilities perhaps didn't need the level of protection that some of the larger ones did," said Gary Keith, vice president of building and life safety for the National Fire Protection Association, the country's leading fire code developer.

"I think what that fire proved is that a lot of things can go wrong that aren't anticipated, and that sprinklers provide a measure of defense even in these small fires," he said.

Howard County wasn't alone in taking a hard look at its code since the Rhode Island fire in February last year. With guidance from the NFPA, Rhode Island and other states imposed tighter regulations for nightclubs.

In Maryland, the incidents in Rhode Island and Chicago served as reminders to fire departments across the state, fire officials said.

"Immediately after the Station fire, we found all the potential places that would be considered similar, and we're working with some of those now" to make them safer, said Lt. Francis Fennell of the Anne Arundel County Fire Department.

In Montgomery County, fire inspectors who canvassed "every single place" turned up several illegal bars and shut them down, said Battalion Chief Mike Donahue, who oversees fire code enforcement for that county's fire department.

"We found a couple places that were not in compliance, and we brought them into compliance," Donahue said.

County codes in the Baltimore-Washington region mostly mirror the state code, although jurisdictions can impose stricter measures, fire officials said.

Baltimore's code doesn't rely on the state code, city fire officials said. Chief Theodore Saunders, the city fire marshal, said Baltimore has banned pyrotechnics in nightclubs and bars for years.

Rural areas of the state, such as the Eastern Shore, do not have the resources to develop or enforce their own codes and usually rely on the state fire marshal's office for fire inspections and code enforcement, officials said.

The result is that some counties or municipalities have stricter fire codes than others. Montgomery and Prince George's counties and Mount Airy in Carroll County require all new homes to have automatic sprinkler systems, for example.

Other counties have considered that requirement, but officials worry that it would drive up costs for homebuilders and buyers and be politically unpopular. Instead, fire officials are taking smaller steps.

In Howard, the new fire code requires homebuilders to offer sprinkler systems to buyers. The Baltimore County Fire Department is drafting legislation that would require builders to offer such a "mandatory option."

For small bars and nightclubs across the state - "places of assembly" - latitude remains in the state code. Existing establishments that can hold 100 people or more are not required to have sprinklers, although many counties can require a business to install sprinklers if the structure doesn't pass a safety inspection.

Fire safety experts hope that within a few years, allowing an existing establishment to avoid incorporating fire safety features such as sprinklers - known as "grandfathering" - will be a thing of the past.

"The real key to preventing tragedies like that which occurred in Rhode Island is a very thorough system of code enforcement," said W. Faron Taylor, Maryland's deputy state fire marshal.

Howard went a step further in its code, which was approved by the County Council and is to take effect Sept. 27. The county is requiring that all existing buildings in that category install sprinklers within 12 years of receiving approval of their plans to comply with new code.

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