• What: Chattanooga City Council meeting
• When: 6 p.m. today
• Where: City Council Building, 1000 Lindsay St.
A mandatory sprinkler ordinance approved by the last City Council could force Chattanooga businesses to abandon downtown in droves rather than pay tens of thousands of dollars to comply, a group of bar owners claims.
But the growing effort to alter the controversial measure has sidelined the firefighters who backed the law in the first place, and some suggest politics is at work.
Chattanooga's fire marshal and fire chief weren't present at the first reading of the bill at Tuesday's council meeting. Mayor Andy Berke's chief of staff, Travis McDonough, told council members that both were in favor of an amended ordinance that frees existing sports bars, restaurants with live entertainment, dance halls and nightclub owners from installing sprinklers.
"They're comfortable with this," McDonough told the council.
After McDonough spoke, Councilwoman Carol Berz, who originally voted for the sprinklers in 2011, said she would go along with the changes if the fire marshal and fire chief were on board.
But on Friday, Chattanooga Fire Chief Lamar Flint said he supports the existing ordinance requiring those existing businesses to install sprinklers by Dec. 31.
"I'm in support of the ordinance in place now," Flint said in an interview. "The fire marshal and I would be able to live with [the new] ordinance if it passed, but the preference is the original ordinance."
When asked why Flint's response was different from the way it was portrayed at City Council by members of Berke's staff, Flint said he didn't know. When asked about that, McDonough through a spokesperson said he believed both men were "OK with the language."
One ranking fire official suggested on a blog that department officials were being silenced, calling it "attempts to puppet master our leaders."
"I just left our staff meeting and I can say with certainty that NONE of our chiefs support these changes. DO NOT BELIEVE ANYTHING YOU READ OR HEAR IN THE NEWS," Battalion Chief Lesley Morgan wrote on a Facebook site for local firefighters and police officers. Morgan declined to comment for this report.
The City Council is expected to vote today on final reading whether to alter the sprinkler requirement. But a group of anonymous firefighters and police sent a letter to the City Council and Berke's staff on Friday requesting that action be tabled for a month so a better solution can be found.
Even if the current ordinance is changed, businesses would still be required to install the extra safety measures if they were in violation of city code by blocking exits, overcrowding their bar or club or using pyrotechnics.
Councilman Chris Anderson, who introduced the amended ordinance and took his recommendations to the fire chief and fire marshal, said he feels like he targeted the cause of fires in bars and clubs.
"I feel very comfortable [that] if we address the root cause of the fire, the sprinkler systems isn't needed," Anderson said.
Multiple business owners, including former Mayor Jon Kinsey, told council members Tuesday that the current ordinance is too costly and owners could be forced to stop offering live music, slash hours or shut down. Kinsey's son Adam owns the popular music venue Track 29, which has not installed sprinklers yet.
Some business owners said they were given estimates of $50,000 to $70,000 to install sprinkler systems, not including the monthly water bill.
"This ordinance as currently written is cost-prohibitive for small, family-owned businesses," Lamar Partridge, owner of Lamar's Restaurant on M.L. King Jr. Boulevard, told the council.
Phil Windham, owner of the Chattanooga Billiard Club, said last week that the sprinkler ordinance would be "egregious," forcing him to install a system at his 20,000-square-foot sports bar off Jordan Drive.
Councilman Larry Grohn said he voted with the other council members to amend the current ordinance because it is excessive and unnecessary for small business owners.
But national fire experts and the Chattanooga Fire Fighters Association Local 820 said the change puts business interests ahead of safety.
"This decision endangers firefighters' lives and makes their jobs more difficult and dangerous," union local President Jack Thompson said. "Second, this decision endangers the lives of citizens and is not in the best interest of public safety."
McDonough, who said the mayor doesn't have a position on the ordinance, told the City Council that fire officials were comfortable with revoking the rules because of updates last year to the National Fire Protection Association life safety code.
The revised safety code dropped bars and live entertainment venues from the list of businesses recommended to install sprinklers for safety.
But the code still recommends sprinklers for buildings where occupancy exceeds 100, including dance halls, discotheques, nightclubs and assembly occupancies with festival seating.
Former Chattanooga Fire Marshal James Whitmire, who spearheaded the initial sprinkler ordinance in 2011, asked why no fire officials were at the City Council when the ordinance passed on first reading.
"In the 28 years I was there, we always had some representation," he said in an interview. "You're diminishing public safety ... if this is passed."
Contact staff writer Joy Lukachick at email@example.com or 423-757-6659.