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Feb. 20, 2004, marks the first anniversary of The Station nightclub fire in West Warwick, RI, which claimed 100 lives. In a response that might serve as a model to other states, that tragedy has led to enactment of “The Comprehensive Fire Safety Act of 2003,” which strengthens Rhode Island’s building code, ends exemptions to new building requirements for existing buildings and gives the state fire marshal greater enforcement powers.
In response to the disaster, the Rhode Island General Assembly created a “Special Legislative Commission to Study All Aspects of Law & Regulation concerning Pyrotechnic Displays and Fire Safety.” The 17-member commission was made up of legislators, fire service leaders (both labor and management) and public-sector representatives. However, legislators led it, which in this case was crucial to assuring that the General Assembly would act consistent with the commission’s findings.
A study group such as this serves two separate important purposes for legislative bodies. First, it enables the gathering of facts from all those with an interest about the tragedy, its causes, and solutions or preventative measures. Second, it enables the legislature to reach a consensus on how to proceed.
The commission completed a lengthy report with numerous recommendations on June 5, 2003. It called for five major recommendations:
- Require the use across the board of up-to-date fire safety codes
- Prohibit the use of fireworks in places such as nightclubs, and strictly regulate their use in large venues, such as the Providence Performing Arts Center
- Mandate sprinklers in nightclubs with an occupancy of 150 or more
- Provide greater enforcement powers to fire marshals
- Establish comprehensive planning requirements to identify fire safety weaknesses in Rhode Island, and to recommend improvements
Perhaps the commission’s most important recommendation was one that cannot be enacted into law. The letter transmitting its final report to legislative leaders notes that no level of government has sufficient resources to do frequent inspections of all properties. There must be a “culture of compliance” with fire safety practices.
As with other laws and regulatory requirements, no government ever will have the enforcement resources to ensure 100% compliance, nor would the public tolerate that level of intrusion into private affairs. Building owners, restaurant and nightclub operators, and others (including homeowners) must be motivated to provide adequate fire protection because it is the right thing to do, and not merely because they fear a possible inspection or because they are “grandfathered,” as was The Station on the night of its catastrophic fire.
Fortunately, the Rhode Island General Assembly did not wait for the study commission to finish its report before starting to work on developing improvements to the fire safety code. Instead, the legislative process and the commission’s work proceeded simultaneously. The two bodies sought to coordinate their efforts so that the final legislation would be consistent with the commission’s recommendations.
“They did an excellent job under difficult circumstances,” said George Farrell, chairman of the Rhode Island Fire Safety Code Board of Appeal & Review.
Both houses of the General Assembly unanimously approved the bill’s final version in the final days of the 2003 legislative session. Governor Donald Carcieri signed the new legislation into law on July 7.
State Rep. Norman Landroche (D-West Warwick), a firefighter who responded to the blaze at The Station, was the original sponsor of the House version of the legislation. He said that he believes the final measure is a positive and fair bill that equitably balances the inevitable financial impact upon businesses with needed fire safety improvements. As a result, he is seeing business owners trying to improve their buildings and other fire safety practices, such as providing employees and patrons with fire safety information.