An attempt under way by the Chattanooga City Council to reduce the city's liability in case of a nightclub fire may have backfired, national officials say.
The city is in the process of adopting new sprinkler rules for existing nightclubs, but doesn't plan to enforce them for three years, giving businesses time to buy the pricey sprinkler systems.
The City Council gave preliminary approval by a 6-3 vote last Tuesday to Chattanooga Fire Marshal James Whitmire's plan, which would require nightclubs eventually to purchase and install sprinkler systems in compliance with a 2006 version of the National Fire Protection Association's 101 Life Safety Code. The council will take up the matter for a second reading today.
Despite the three-year enforcement moratorium, bars that repeatedly violate other sections of the fire code could be forced to install sprinkler systems within 30 to 90 days, depending on the fire marshal's orders.
"If they're in violation of something else, he can go in and require sprinklers," said Phil Noblett, assistant city attorney.
But the ordinance could do more harm than good when it comes to safety and reliability, said Wayne Waggoner, a past chairman of the National Fire Protection Association.
"Yeah, you're setting yourself up for huge lawsuits on that," said Waggoner, who had a hand in writing the 2006 fire codes. "You're half as safe as you'd be with just the old code."
From a liability standpoint, it's better to keep an existing code and enforce it uniformly than to adopt a new code and poke it full of holes, he said. When the National Fire Protection Association added sprinkler requirements to the 2006 codes, it eased proposed requirements dealing with firewalls and exits since some rules had became duplicative, Waggoner said. But "if you go in and take the sprinklers out (of the ordinance) and don't put the other stuff back in, you're in double jeopardy now," he said.
City Council Chairman Manny Rico said he voted for the ordinance because fire officials convinced him the city would face increased liability if the old code was maintained.
"That was my big concern. I don't want the city being liable," Rico said later.
He later said he would "change my vote" if it turns out that liability wasn't an issue.
In fact, the city's total liability per catastrophe case is capped by law at $700,000, Noblett said, far less than the $10 million dollar settlement the Rhode Island city of West Warwick was forced to turn over to plaintiffs after a deadly fire there in 2003.
Following a disaster at The Station nightclub in West Warwick, in which pyrotechnics from the hard rock band Great White caught the club on fire and more than 100 people died, it was found that the city had failed to enforce existing fire code provisions against the club, which otherwise would have been required to install a sprinkler system, said Michael DiMascolo, deputy chief fire marshal of the state of Rhode Island.
Walter Williams, an attorney and a former Chattanooga city judge, said the limited, "selective" nature of the new fire code ordinance also raises issues about who is being targeted and why, especially in the black community.
"Initially, it was going to cover any number of clubs. Now they've made it where it won't cover the Comedy Catch. It won't cover some dance halls. They keep making exceptions. I've heard from a number of African-American clubs that it could affect them in a devastating way," said Williams.
The council has, in fact, narrowed the group of bars that will be affected from the original 50 to only a handful, following an outcry from many business owners, including the owner of the Comedy Catch.
By using the city's "nightclub" designation to determine which buildings will come under the rule, only bars that have live music, an occupancy of more than 100 and serve drinks after 11 p.m. will be affected.
Fire officials said that the narrowed criteria was the City Council's idea. Their recommendation was originally to install sprinklers in most bars within two years, but so many businesses threatened to close their doors, the council recommended that the city's existing definition of a nightclub be used as the criteria instead. The council also extended the deadline for complying with the new rules from two to three years.
City Councilman Jack Benson, who voted against the measure, said hurting even a few businesses is too much.
"Nobody wants a building with a $100,000 liability," Benson said. "I have some problems with government depreciating the value of property by edict and by ordinance, without compensating the property owner."
He also has problems with the very basis for the rule. The National Fire Protection Association guidelines are only "a recommendation," he said, "not a governmental edict."
"It's a standard, but a standard I think is impractical," he said.
As for rolling the fire code back to its previous rules, Benson said he didn't think it is possible.
"We've already opened Pandora's box on this thing," he said.
Ellis Smith joined the Chattanooga Times Free Press in January 2010 as a business reporter. His beat includes the flooring industry, Chattem, Unum, Krystal, the automobile market, real estate and technology. Ellis is from Marietta, Ga., and has a bachelor’s degree in mass communication at the University of West Georgia. He previously worked at UTV-13 News, Carrollton, Ga., as a producer; at the The West Georgian, Carrollton, Ga., as editor; and at the Times-Georgian, Carrollton, ...