published Tuesday, February 22nd, 2011

Firestorm persists over sprinklers

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.

about Ellis Smith...

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, ...

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fftspam said...

Chattanooga Fire Department does a fine job responding to emergencies from my point of view. Unfortunately they are taking the heat, so to speak, of something that is +really+ coming from the building codes dept. The city has to follow/adopt new building codes and who better to ask for sprinklers than the fire dept? . A side note... I have a question... The CFD is on duty 24/7/365... We 'know' the popular venues that are packed on certain nights. We see CFD trucks parked in front of restaurants because the guys on duty are just going out to eat. How often do CFD trucks make a walk-through at the crowded clubs? Checking capacity, exits, alarms etc?

February 22, 2011 at 2:40 a.m.
fftspam said...

Good job Ellis.... covering many different angles. My questions are just tangents to your story. Very good piece.

February 22, 2011 at 2:49 a.m.
jpo3136 said...

The politicians opposing sprinklers have, with each story that quotes them, consistently raised the amount of money they claim it will cost to install sprinklers.

Just a few weeks ago, they were saying this might cost $15K. Then it was $30K. $60K. If the quote above is to be believed, they are now trying to tell us that installing sprinklers in a building costs $100,000.

Come on. It is a plain pipe with a heat-sensitive, meltaway plug in a spring-loaded valve. I am surprised that local corporate hardware stores don't have plumbing contractors who will install sprinkler piping and support for a modest fee.

How much do they think we'll believe it costs to install a lightbulb in the "Emergency Exit" sign? $200,000?

It is a water pipe with a plug at the end. It does not cost untold thousands to install plumbing. The Romans did it. If they had complied with a sprinkler fire code, maybe then their city would not have burned to the ground.

Requiring sprinklers is not unreasonable. It's so basic, we're surprised that someone in our area is operating a business without them. If you pack in hundreds of people, have fires and flames going in the kitchen, and store and sell many gallons of combustible beverages: how is it a surprise that we expect sprinklers?

An example of an aggressive safety measure would be a DUI Tax. How about a $10,000 penalty to every business who served or sold alcohol to someone responsible for a DUI crash within 24 hours? That's an example of imposing a significant restriction based on safety.

Fire sprinklers are a reasonable protective measure. Providing for the extinguishing of fires and the swift escape of crowds is a normal and responsible part of doing business.

February 22, 2011 at 3:49 a.m.
erobersonII said...

You can't make an effective sprinkler system with "some water pipe and melt away plugs". The system has to be pressurized, many times with a fire pump. City water pressure won't make a sprinkler system work properly.

February 22, 2011 at 5:28 a.m.
michaela77 said...

First, the quote from MR Walter Williams is incorrect The Comedy Catch has not been excluded. I would have to make changes, such as stop serving alcohol at 11pm. So We are still in this fight. Although, I would agree this ordinance is meant to crack down on night clubs. Chief Randy Parker at the first mention of this said to the City Council " we are here every couple of weeks before you with trouble from nightclubs "... Second, to the first poster, they inspect twice a year and walk through one or more additional times. However since this fight began we have gotten an unannounced visit from the head of city codes. Third, The cost to install the system is $10 to $16 a square foot. That is why the price is different because all locations are different sizes. And Yes The Comedy Catch would cost more than $100K. Finally, our issue is the marshal going above and beyond the 2006 code which states: Chapter 13, - "An existing building housing an assembly occupation established prior to the effective date of this code shall be permitted to be approved for continued use if it conforms to, or is made to conform to, the provisions of this code to the extent that, in the opinion of the authority having jurisdiction, reasonable life safety against the hazards of fire, explosion and panic is provided and maintained". He wants to have only "Night Clubs" install the system even with the code stating we do not have to.

Michael Alfano The Comedy Catch and Giggles Grill

February 22, 2011 at 9:25 a.m.
harrystatel 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."

The City would be better served if brains were installed in the City Council.

February 22, 2011 at 5:23 p.m.
MountainJoe said...

No kidding, harry.

Putting small businesses out of business is never good business.

I don't think the code change to require sprinklers is necessary at all. (Frankly, if anyone is concerned about fire safety at the Comedy Catch or anywhere else, all they have to do is not go there.) But if the council does put it into effect, they should grandfather-in all existing businesses.

February 22, 2011 at 8:29 p.m.
jpo3136 said...

No one is going to go out of business installing a $13 fire sprinkler head. What nonsense. These pols are spewing out inflated figures that do not match the observable facts.

The fire sprinkler heads, which are the specialized meltaway valves: average $13 each.

The pipe requirements are common plumbing supply parts.

Getting people to install these systems, like providing specialized training to someone with experience in a similar area, is not that expensive.

Fire sprinkler training, the cost to get someone trained on how to plan and assemble one of these systems: under $3000.

These politicians are claiming that the systems cost $100K. Those tall tales just don't match the observable facts.

Expect sprinklers. They conserve lives in an emergency, are low in cost to install and maintain, and make basic sense.

February 22, 2011 at 9:40 p.m.
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