Chattanooga fire officials have succeeded in their push to adopt new fire codes that would require legally-defined "nightclubs" to install sprinkler systems by the end of 2013.
The bill making the change passed its first reading Tuesday night in a 6-3 City Council vote. Its second and final reading is scheduled for next week.
The revised proposal ties the tighter codes to the city's definition of a nightclub, adding specificity to the rule that was previously lacking, City Council members said, though some were still critical of the gray areas.
"We really don't know what we're voting on," said Councilman Jack Benson, who voted against the rule change.
Councilmen Russell Gilbert and Peter Murphy also voted no.
Many bar owners have said that the cost of compliance -- ranging from $60,000 to more than $100,000, depending on each building's size and layout -- would force them to shut their doors.
"We as businesses that are already established should be able to keep our business as it is ... provided reasonable life safety is maintained," said Comedy Catch owner Michael Alfano.
The new code requires buildings that meet the definition of a nightclub -- a business with live entertainment that serves alcohol between 11 p.m. and 3 a.m. to 100 or more people -- to install sprinkler systems by Dec. 31, 2013.
The revised rules will allow city Fire Marshal James Whitmire to require any nightclub to install a sprinkler system at any time if they are deemed to be habitual rule violators.
That part of the new law is still too vague for the 25-member Chattanooga Business League, said representative Jermaine Harper.
He said the change from the original, blanket proposal to one that would affect only nightclubs was not communicated to CBL members prior to the vote, despite the business owners' appeal to be part of any regulatory discussion.
"It looks like a proposed opportunity to include some and exclude others," Harper said. "As it reads today, it's very vague."
Chattanooga Fire Chief Randy Parker initially shot down proposals by council members to raise the club occupancy level to 200 from 100 and allow businesses an extra year to comply.
"That's not my recommendation," he said, though the council did eventually extend the original 2012 deadline to 2013.
Other cities in Tennessee, including Nashville, Knoxville and Memphis, have adopted the code with some variations to account for the wishes of local constituents, but Parker warned that it could open the city to litigation in case of a fatal fire.
"This is the standard code," he said. "If something happens, they're going to ask why we didn't follow the standard."
Contact staff writer Ellis Smith at esmith@timesfree press.com or 423-757-6315.