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R.I. lawmaker wants repeal of fire code

A firefighter, center, inspects the charred interior of the nightclub, The Station, in this Friday, Feb. 21, 2003 file photo, after a fatal fire at the club in West Warwick, R.I. Spurred by the nation's fourth-deadliest nightclub blaze, Rhode Island lawmakers adopted phonebook-sized bills in 2003 during a frenzy to tighten fire codes. Now a state lawmaker and several business owners wonder if they went too far. (AP Photo/Michael Dwyer)

PROVIDENCE, R.I. --Performers can't light a single candle on the Odeum Theater's stage. The floors are concrete, the curtains flame retardant; an alarm system connects to the East Greenwich Fire Department.

All in all, those who operate the historic community theater, which has drawn performers ranging from the Count Basie Orchestra to the National Shakespeare Company, think it's pretty safe.

"The most volatile appliance we have in the theater is the coffee maker," joked Frank Prosnitz, president of the nonprofit Odeum Corp.

But the theater's safeguards aren't enough to satisfy Rhode Island's stringent fire code, a set of safety rules adopted after a nightclub fire killed 100 people in 2003.

Fire officials decided last month that the Odeum must install a sprinkler system at an estimated cost of $200,000 or cut its capacity almost in half.

The resulting drop in ticket sales could close the theater, Prosnitz said.

After the 2003 tragedy at The Station nightclub, Rhode Island lawmakers adopted phonebook-size bills during a frenzy to tighten fire codes. Now a state lawmaker and several business owners wonder whether they went too far.

Rep. Joseph Trillo, R-Warwick, has introduced a bill repealing that new code, except for the provisions governing nightclubs. He argues that the costs the bills impose are too hefty for small businesses and says the state didn't need new laws to prevent the nightclub from burning -- it just needed to enforce the old ones.

"The only solution to the problem is to stop the hemorrhaging, to pull the whole code," said Trillo, who owns a security business that sells burglar and fire alarms. "It's overkill."

The political will to enact the code came easily after the deadly blaze at The Station on Feb. 20, 2003, a tragedy that touched many in so small a state.

A tour manager for the heavy metal band Great White shot off pyrotechnics inside a cramped bar, which ignited flammable soundproofing foam lining the walls. The flames spread almost immediately, suffocating people and trapping them inside. Later, a report by the federal government concluded that sprinklers could have prevented the carnage, even though they weren't required at the club.

Besides requiring more sprinklers and alarms, the fire code largely eliminates the grandfathering clauses that allowed public buildings to avoid upgrades required under new building rules. Other noticeable changes include a requirement that nightclub owners hire crowd managers and turn up the lights before a show and point out exits.

Trillo isn't getting much support from Democratic legislative leaders, but the move has shed light on the troubles businesses and others are having meeting the new regulations. Rhode Island's fire code is unusual because it largely prevents fire authorities from exempting large, existing buildings from installing fire sprinklers that can cost thousands of dollars.

Installing sprinklers is easier when constructing new buildings because the cost can be rolled into long-term mortgages, said Kenneth Kuntz, who helped investigate The Station blaze for the National Institute of Standards and Technology. But making those improvements in a mom-and-pop shop could mean upgrading water pipes, installing heaters and water tanks and other work.

Kuntz said most people support fire safety laws -- until they have to pay.

"Suffering a cost like that could well put them out of business," Kuntz said. But he added: "If the Rhode Island nightclub had been put out of business by the cost of such an ordinance, there would be 100 people alive today who aren't."

Trillo says that if the state had enforced its existing fire codes at The Station, that would have been enough. West Warwick should have inspected the club far more closely when it changed ownership and uses over the years, he said. A fire inspector who visited the club said he never noticed the flammable soundproofing foam, which was as illegal then as now.

Fire safety officials argue that scrapping the new code is unnecessary, since the Fire Safety Code Board of Appeal and Review can grant leniency to individual businesses -- even entire industries.

Central Falls Fire Chief Rene Coutu, who leads the board, said it has exempted some funeral parlors, churches and dining facilities from adding sprinklers in return for other safety concessions.

Although the improvements cost money, Coutu credits them with saving lives. Last month, a fire alarm system required under the 2003 code alerted firefighters to a blaze in an apartment building just as smoke filled a stairwell -- and they were able to quickly carry two women to safety.

"We addressed every type of occupancy in the state" in the new code, Coutu said. "We don't need to do just nightclubs and then have someone die in apartment houses, and then deal with apartment houses."