The Chattanooga City Council voted 5-4 Tuesday to require nightclub owners to install costly sprinkler upgrades by the end of 2012.
Opponents say they will fight the measure in court.
A new version of the bill, initially proposed in January, had its enforcement moratorium extended by one year, so Tuesday marked its official first reading. It is scheduled to come up for a second and final reading next Tuesday.
Sprinkler installations cost an average of $50,000 to $75,000, which doesn't include thousands in additional installation costs for Tennessee American Water Co. to provide a high-capacity connection, which usually runs from $2,000 to $3,500. Nor does it include annual fees to maintain the connection that run as high as $4,700 per year, according to figures cited by Tennessee American.
Fire Marshal James Whitmire, who initially proposed the law with a one-year moratorium on enforcement, pulled out all the stops Tuesday at what turned out to be yet another hearing in a contentious debate that has dragged on for months.
Whitmire brought proponents of stricter sprinkler standards, including a sprinkler industry lobbyist, a survivor of The Station nightclub fire in Rhode Island that killed 100 people in 2003, and the National Fire Protection Association's director for the region.
Robert Feeney survived the fire at The Station in Rhode Island, but his fiancee did not. He described the fire in graphic detail for the council members. Two minutes after the fire started, he said, "there are people on the floor, the ceiling is falling in on us, and the heat is melting the skin off our bones."
"I wouldn't be here today if The Station had a sprinkler system," he said. "How many people have to die in Chattanooga before you have to become proactive?"
Though Chattanooga has had no deaths from nightclub fires in recorded history, fire officials have emphasized that the past is no perfect predictor of future events.
But attorney Jerry Tidwell, who represents the two dozen local nightclub owners affected by the ruling, said The Station had numerous other problems besides the lack of a sprinkler system.
"There were a bunch of idiots shooting fireworks off inside, that's always going to be a recipe for tragedy," he said. "I looked at the lawsuit, and the word 'sprinkler' was not anywhere."
The lawsuit did, however, take local officials to task for not enforcing existing regulations that would have required The Station to install sprinklers when it changed its use to a nightclub, Rhode Island officials have said.
Chattanooga has been under those same regulations for over a year.
Tidwell argued that the new law doesn't just discriminate against nightclub owners, it ignores traditional establishments such as restaurants where more actual fires occur.
And overall, 85 percent of deaths from fire occur in homes, not bars or restaurants, he said.
In fact, according to the National Fire Protection Association, only 1.6 percent of all fires occur in eating and drinking establishments, a number that includes bars, restaurants and other establishments.
"We just think it is not fair nor is it protecting the vast majority of people in this city," Tidwell said.
In addition, the city could have just opened itself up to legal action should a fire occur during the enforcement moratorium, according to Michael McMahan, city attorney.
"If [Fire Marshal Whitmire] were to know that a building was unsafe and failed to take action, the city could be sued on that," McMahan said.
During the moratorium, it will be up to Whitmire to determine if any bars or nightclubs need to immediately install a sprinkler system for safety reasons.