Fire department checks out bar scene

Night consultants help keep partying patrons safe

Paul Schneider, night consultant for Lawrence-Douglas County Fire & Medical, waits to cross Massachusetts Street on Oct. 11 to enforce fire safety codes regarding the line outside the Granada, 1020 Mass. The fire department makes a regular pub crawl to ensure fire codes are being followed so that the venues remain safe for patrons.

Paul Schneider, center, stops in at Fatso's, 1016 Mass. Street, during his rounds Oct. 11, 2008, as night consultant for Lawrence-Douglas County Fire & Medical. Schneider surveys Lawrence bars to make sure they are not overcrowded and are obeying fire codes.

Paul Schneider, center, night consultant for Lawrence-Douglas County Fire & Medical, meets with doorman and bartender Tom Larkin on Oct. 11 at The Wheel. The fire department makes a regular pub crawl to ensure fire codes are being followed.

Overcrowding violations

Almost every night, Lawrence-Douglas County Fire & Medical hit the Lawrence bar scene to make sure crowds aren’t overflowing. In the past two years, 11 violations have been reported for overcrowded venues. Here’s a list of who’s been caught and fined.

¢ Quinton’s Bar & Deli, 615 Mass., was issued overcrowding violations on Jan. 23 and 24, 2007. The bar was fined $1,000. A third violation was issued on May 18, 2007. That case was dismissed without prejudice.

¢ The Crossing, formerly 618 W. 12th St., was issued a ticket for overcrowding on Feb. 1, 2007. The case was later dismissed.

¢ Cadillac Ranch, 2515 W. Sixth St., was found guilty twice of overcrowding. One was for an incident on Feb. 2, 2007, and the other for an incident Jan. 21, 2008. The bar has paid $2,000 in fines.

¢ The Hawk, 1340 Ohio, was issued a ticket for overcrowding on Nov. 3, 2007. The bar was found guilty and issued a $1,000 fine.

¢ Holiday Inn, 200 Mc Donald Drive, was found guilty of overcrowding for a Dec. 8, 2007, event. A $500 fine was given.

¢ Abe & Jake’s Landing, 8 E. Sixth St., was issued two tickets for overcrowding. For an incident on Jan. 1, 2008, the bar owners were found guilty and fined $500. For a ticket given on Jan. 26, 2008, the owners took the case to court and were found not guilty.

¢ The Wheel, 507 W. 14th St., was issued an overcrowding ticket on Feb. 8, 2008. A deferred sentence was given.

¢ Club Axis, 821 Iowa, was issued a ticket March 10, 2008, for overcrowding. The case was dismissed.

It’s a crisp fall Saturday night, a few hours after the Kansas University football team won its matchup against the Colorado Buffaloes. Downtown is transforming from a celebratory dinner crowd to a group that’s ready to party.

As Lawrence firefighter Paul Schneider makes his rounds – first cruising down Massachusetts Street, then out to Sixth Street to swing by Cadillac Ranch, next across Iowa Street to check on Club Axis and finally down to the student-saturated bars at Ohio and 14th streets – he makes a few predictions.

“Most game nights are going to be big ones. The older crowd is partied out, but the younger crowd is still game,” he said.

He should know. It’s among Schneider’s duties to keep his eye on the Lawrence bar crowd. He is one of several firefighters from Lawrence-Douglas County Fire & Medical who work as night consultants.

Whether it be a fire, gunshot or even a can of pepper spray set off in a crowded nightclub, a mass of people heading towards the door can turn deadly. It’s Schneider’s job to ensure bars aren’t overflowing, doors stay unlocked and entrances remain clear.

“As we have seen around the country with other instances, it can result in deaths. So what we try to do is enforce the code,” Schneider said.

Keeping crowds at bay

In Lawrence, every establishment where people assemble indoors – churches, stores, restaurants – has a limit on how many people it can hold. That helps ensure people can safely leave a building in an emergency. The fire department sets those limits, based on the business size, how many tables or chairs would block an exit, and the number of doors and stairways people could use to get out.

While every public establishment has occupancy limits, the fire department keeps close tabs on bars and night clubs. The mixture of young patrons, dimly lit rooms, alcohol and packed dance floors can be dangerous.

Division Chief Rich Barr points to a 2003 fire that broke out at The Station, a Rhode Island nightclub.

The start of the fire – caused by a fireworks display at a Great White concert – and ensuing chaos were caught on video. In only a few minutes, bodies started stacking up at the club’s front entrance as black smoke poured out over top. Of the 450 people or so at the club, 100 lost their lives to the fire.

This year, Barr used parts of the video to train Lawrence bar staff about the importance of keeping crowds controlled and doorways clear. Some found it disturbing, but Barr believes it conveys that protecting bar patrons is serious business.

For the past 20 years – long before the Rhode Island club fire – the Lawrence fire department has sent firefighters on nightly checks. For the most part, they make rounds between 10 a.m. and 2 p.m., Wednesday through Saturday.

For Schneider, the job is a change from his regular duties as the station engineer.

“It does get me out of the station and out in the public a little more,” Schneider said.

For one of the largest venues in town, Abe & Jake’s Landing, the firefighters’ presence brings the issue of crowd control to the forefront.

“It fosters more compliance on our end,” general manager Ryan Lantz said.

Sticking to the code

Overcrowding is just one in a long list of fire code violations found at bars and restaurants during the past two years, according to the fire department. Since Jan. 1, 2007, more than 700 violations have been reported at Lawrence bars and restaurants.

The vast majority are seemingly mundane: failing to do annual inspections on fire extinguishers, burned-out bulbs in exit lights or using extension cords and power strips.

Those problems are usually caught during annual inspections and owners are given 30 days to fix them. Rarely do business owners end up in court or fined.

Overcrowding is another matter. The fire department has zero tolerance for that, Barr said.

In the past two years, 11 violations have been issued for overcrowding. In six of those cases, the business was found guilty and fined between $500 and $1,000.

Under city law, fines for the first overcrowding offense can range from $500 to $2,500. For the second offense, they range from $1,000 to $2,500.

Lawrence City Prosecutor Jerry Little said cases can be dismissed or plea agreements made if problems are fixed or improvements are under way. Last month, an overcrowding case against Abe & Jake’s Landing went to trial. The judge found the bar not guilty. It’s rare for a business owner to take a case to trial.

“Generally, they are not denying it,” Little said.

The bar owner disputed the number of people the night consultant counted on its dance floor, saying it wasn’t physically possible to fit that amount of people into the space.

By the numbers

Abe & Jakes manager Lantz said occupancy levels are taken seriously. Close to capacity almost every Friday night, the bar routinely receives visits form the fire department.

Doormen keep tally with counters at the front entrance and through cover charges. Prior violations were caused by patrons sneaking into the bar, Lantz said. Management has since plugged the leak by stationing doormen at every exit.

Phil Bradley, CEO of the Kansas License and Beverage Association, does have some concerns with the system. He said when the fire department sets occupancy levels, the code is based around general models that don’t always account for unique or historical buildings. And businesses can’t get a variance or exception to those occupancy rules.

“In most cases they are appropriate, but in some cases they are extreme and draconian,” he said.

Lantz agrees that occupancy levels can seem arbitrary. When Abe and Jake’s first opened it was allowed to hold 1050 people, but the occupancy load has since been reduced to 720.

The fire department has told the bar that the railroad to the south, river to the north and the tunnel leading to the front entrance all would make a mass exodus difficult.

But with an extensive sprinkling system and numerous doors on the main floor, Lantz said he disagrees. And that decision hurts the bar’s business, he said.

“It would be better for us to have more people from a revenue standpoint,” he said.

Keep counting

On this Saturday night, Schneider parks his car right outside The Hawk. He weaves his way to the front of a 100-person line, chats with the doorman and then heads inside.

Hands wrapped around a tally counter, Schneider pushes through the Hawk’s labyrinth of rooms, counting as he goes.

After six years on the job, Schneider usually can tell with a glance if a bar is over capacity.

That night, Schneider counts about 500 people inside. The Hawk is well under its 660 occupancy level. He moves up 14th Street to The Wheel, where he is greeted by an intoxicated girl giving high fives to everyone coming through the door. Though it isn’t easy to maneuver through the bar, The Wheel is also well below the limit.

Typically, Schneider issues one or two overcrowding citations a year. If bars are over capacity by a few people, he will work with them to get the numbers down.

However, if bars are substantially over (from five to 50 people), a ticket is written. The night consultant title come with hammer.In extreme cases, bars can be shut down until all the patrons leave.

Maintaining a presence

On this Saturday night, after hitting the bars near campus, Schneider travels back downtown. At The Granada, as a hip-hop DJ sets up his equipment on stage, Schneider checks to make sure no extension cords are out of place and that side doors and exits are clear.

He continues down the street to the Red Lyon Tavern, Replay Lounge, Jazzhaus and Jackpot Saloon. Every bar is well within its capacity. By now it’s close to midnight, and it’s obvious the crowds aren’t going to be massive.

As he approaches his car in front of The Granada, Schneider spots a line that has sprung up in front of the night club. He stops to ensure the front entry is kept clear.

“They are always going to bend the rules if you are not out all the time,” he says as he walks down Massachusetts Street. “That is why you need to be out.”