Archive for Sunday, February 15, 2004

Year after R.I. nightclub fire, few changes made elsewhere

February 15, 2004


— When a rock band's pyrotechnics set a Rhode Island nightclub ablaze, killing 100 people and injuring scores of others, fire marshals across the nation scurried to review their safety inspections.

At least 15 states debated tougher laws, mostly dealing with pyrotechnics, and a national fire safety association approved more stringent safety recommendations.

But one year after the tragedy at The Station nightclub in West Warwick, only Rhode Island has enacted sweeping new fire safety measures dealing with everything from fire sprinklers to upgrading older buildings.

National fire safety experts say it could take years for many other states to follow suit.

"It's not my sense that (the Rhode Island) fire is poised to make profound change," said David Lucht, director of the Center for Firesafety Studies at Worcester Polytechnic Institute in Massachusetts. "We don't as a society take fire safety that seriously."

Since the nation's fourth-deadliest nightclub fire, eight other states -- Alabama, Connecticut, Georgia, Illinois, Maine, Minnesota, New York and North Carolina -- approved tighter rules for indoor fireworks. Cities also debated changes, with Boston banning indoor pyrotechnics.

"The fire absolutely put the issue on the radar screen," said Julie Heckman, executive director of the Maryland-based American Pyrotechnics Assn. "What we saw in Rhode Island was the blatant misuse of indoor pyrotechnics."

The association, which includes 260 companies, wants all states to adopt uniform standards and licensing requirements for fireworks use.

The Rhode Island blaze -- sparked by a pyrotechnic show by the band Great White -- was the impetus for standards approved last summer by the Quincy, Mass.-based National Fire Protection Assn. The group now recommends requiring sprinklers in every new club serving at least 50 patrons, and in every existing club serving at least 100.

Thirty-four states, including Rhode Island, voluntarily adopted the group's previous recommendations. It could be another decade before the association knows how broadly its new standards will be adopted, said NFPA assistant Vice President Robert Solomon.

A bill banning pyrotechnics in public buildings where 50 or more people gather received tentative approval last week in the Kansas House.

"It will be a more drawn-out process," he said. "We've seen good things come from these types of tragedies."

State Rep. Peter Ginaitt, a Warwick firefighter at the nightclub fire, said Rhode Island won't consider the new NFPA standards until the state evaluates the effect of its own new regulations.

The state's new code prohibits pyrotechnics in all but its largest public venues, and most nightclubs must have sprinklers by July 2005. The code also gets rid of the "grandfathering" statutes that allowed older buildings to ignore new safety standards.

Many of the changes go into effect on Friday, the first anniversary of the fire.

Rhode Island Gov. Don Carcieri said he hoped the new regulations "would set the stage for what happens nationwide, to make sure this never happens again."

While the legacy of The Station fire outside Rhode Island may be uncertain, it's clearly changed attitudes in the nation's smallest state.

"There's a greater awareness, not only on the part of owners but their patrons," said Bill Howe, chief of inspections for the state fire marshal. "We get more complaints ... people who might have accepted things in the past no longer do."

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