R.I. Adopts Fire Safety Law In Response to Nightclub Fire

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...


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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.