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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.
The legislation is a comprehensive measure that specifically adopts the National Fire Protection Association (NFPA) Uniform Fire Code (NFPA 1) and Life Safety Code (NFPA 101) as law in Rhode Island. It repeals grandfather exemptions for buildings, empowers fire inspectors and requires sprinklers in many nightclubs. The grandfather exemption repeal is effective on Feb. 20. Farrell believes this is a critical change because of the enforcement clauses created by grandfather clauses.
More important, the legislature specifically recognized that compliance with fire safety codes (and other laws, for that matter) is critical to their being effective in reducing both risks and losses. Thus, there are numerous provisions designed to promote compliance.
The state fire marshal is required to prepare a comprehensive plan for improving fire safety in Rhode Island by Feb. 20 and update it every five years. The plan must include recommendations for public fire safety education. Previously, the state fire marshal had been solely a law enforcement official. Further, the state fire marshal must submit an annual report summarizing the fire experience, fire safety programs, and progress toward meeting the goals in the five-year plan. While this might sound like another bureaucratic requirement, reports such as this can provide valuable information and can be effective in holding authorities accountable for their actions.
Immediately following the law’s enactment, the Fire Safety Code Board moved quickly to develop regulations to implement the new law’s requirements. Proposed rules were published in November, public hearings held in December and the final rule was scheduled for completion at the beginning of 2004. As Executive Director Tom Coffey explained, it is tailoring the NFPA standards to be consistent with Rhode Island law. The greatest concern is with active fire protection systems, where Rhode Island’s existing requirements are more stringent than the NFPA’s.
The Fire Board also recognizes the need for cultural change in attitudes toward fire safety urged by the legislative commission, and is seeing a lot of change, according to Coffey. The Fire Board is getting a lot more fire safety through voluntary compliance. It is doing a lot more fire safety education, both with the public and with building groups. And, it is seeing results. Coffey reports that it has received numerous voluntary requests for assistance in upgrading fire protection systems.
Prior to last year’s tragedy, Rhode Island’s fire experience had not been bad. Its level of fire deaths had been low. Rhode Island had never had a major nightclub fire prior to The Station. However, as the legislative commission noted, “just because a tragedy has not happened, that does not mean it cannot happen.”
Undoubtedly, the new law is not perfect. But, Rhode Island’s response to this terrible tragedy already has been cited as an example for other states to follow. Hopefully, though, other states will act to prevent a similar tragedy, instead of in response to one.
Steve Blackistone, a Firehouse® contributing editor, is an attorney and a member of the Bethesda-Chevy Chase Rescue Squad in Montgomery County, MD.