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A heated discussion over whether the city's sprinkler ordinance would hurt business or jeopardize public safety came to an end Tuesday night when city officials voted to approve changes.
Several firefighters and officials warned City Council members Tuesday afternoon that they are choosing business interests over public safety if they go along with changes to the city's sprinkler requirements.
"I implore you now not to take steps backward," said Ricky Boatwright, a member of the Chattanooga Fire Fighters Association. "Some business owners may question whether this is now cost-effective for them to install sprinklers in this economy, but my question to you is can you not afford to install sprinklers?"
City officials voted 8-1 to approve the changes to the ordinance, with sponsor Councilman Chris Anderson citing a cost-saving victory for small-business owners.
"The firefighters have a very noble profession. Their only job is much more noble than mine, it's just to save lives," Anderson said. "Our job is more convoluted than that."
After the vote, nearly a dozen firefighters walked out the council meeting one shaking his head at officials.
The changes in the ordinance grandfather existing bar and club owners into an older fire code freeing them from installing sprinkler systems, unless the owners shoot off pyrotechnics. New owners still will have to comply with the current fire codes and install sprinklers and anyone found to have violated the fire code must do the same.
Multiple business owners including former Mayor Jon Kinsey, the primary owner of the Chattanooga Choo Choo, backed the changes complaining the ordinance was overbearing and unfair.
"The problem with the ordinance as passed it singles out a small group of small businesses that simply can't afford it," Kinsey told the council. "
While former fire officials and union leaders spoke out publicly, current Fire Chief Lamar Flint stayed silent Tuesday afternoon. But three hours later at the council meeting, Flint spoke up, asking the council to vote against the ordinance.
"I ask this council not to vote for this," Flint said.
When Flint sat down the City Council approved the ordinance. Councilwoman Carol Berz was the only dissenting vote. She declined to comment after the meeting on how she voted.
Flint too declined to comment on why he spoke up, telling a reporter to speak with the mayor's spokeswoman, Lacie Stone.
Tension rose with the firefighters, after Flint and Fire Marshal William Matlock were absent at last week's council meeting when the ordinance was discussed and Chattanooga Mayor Andy Berke's Chief of Staff Travis McDonough spoke on behalf of fire officials saying they were comfortable with the changes.
So this week nearly a dozen firefighters and former fire officials came to Tuesday's City Council agenda session to express their concerns about the changes and ask for more time to find a compromise. Three officials spoke including the former Fire Chief Randy Parker, who backed the original ordinance that passed in 2011.
"It's really an emotional issue for us," Parker said after the meeting. "Most of us have been involved in fatal fires where we had to pull people out of buildings and we don't want to see that happen again. If they're any questions we'd like to answer them."
City Council members didn't have any questions or discuss a compromise.
Council Chairman Yusuf Hakeem said after the meeting he felt the firefighters' plea was emotional and not based in facts.
During Tuesday's agenda session, business owners were given a second chance to speak after being invited last week during a special hearing to talk about how the ordinance could hurt their businesses.
Several owners predicted costs from $50,000 to $70,000, and others like Comedy Catch owner Michael Alfano said he would have to change what his business does or shut his doors.
"I respect what [the firefighters] put forth, sometimes I wish they respect a little bit of what we have to put forth as a business," Alfano said. "We are looking to protect our customers, but we have to have the funds to afford that."
Contact staff writer Joy Lukachick at firstname.lastname@example.org or 423-757-6659.