Feb. 25, 2003, 3:50PM

Dewhurst wonders how safe clubs are in Texas
Study of applicable state laws ordered
Copyright 2003 Houston Chronicle Austin Bureau
AUSTIN -- The recent nightclub tragedies in Rhode Island and Chicago prompted Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst on Monday to order an examination of how well Texas laws protect people in public facilities.

Dewhurst told the Senate State Affairs Committee to review existing laws and regulations "to ensure that all reasonable measures have been taken to prevent similar tragedies from occurring in our state.

"I am particularly concerned about laws relating to fire safety, including the use of indoor pyrotechnics, in both incorporated and unincorporated areas," Dewhurst said.

At least 97 people were killed Thursday night when fire swept through a crowded nightclub in West Warwick, R.I. The blaze was sparked by a pyrotechnics display used by a rock band performing in a building that didn't have a sprinkler system.

A few nights earlier, 21 people were killed at a Chicago club in a melee that began after a security guard used pepper spray to break up a fight.

Dewhurst said the Senate study will include safety procedures at outdoor, as well as indoor, venues.

Sens. Mario Gallegos, D-Houston, and Frank Madla, D-San Antonio, are "preparing legislative proposals that will help prevent these tragedies in the state of Texas," Dewhurst said. The State Affairs Committee is chaired by Sen. Bill Ratliff, R-Mount Pleasant.

Gallegos, a former Houston firefighter, said his bill, which is still being drafted, would require permits for large performances.

"Most of the big cities have codes like this. I'm concerned with the ones that do not," he said.

The city of Houston's fire code requires a permit for any performance planning to have an audience of more than 50 people, said John Monnat, a senior inspector with the Houston Fire Department.

Monnat said any performance with pyrotechnics must be reviewed before the event with a demonstration and inspection of the stage surroundings.

Houston's building code requires a nightclub to have a fire sprinkler system if its size exceeds 5,000 square feet or if its occupancy is more than 300 people, said Rob Clifton, acting senior inspector for the building code division.

Gallegos said he doesn't oppose clubs or other venues allowing pyrotechnics in performances, but he said they should be regulated by commissioners courts, city councils or volunteer fire departments.

"I think that if they do want to have these special effects, they should be regulated by the local entity," Gallegos said.

"I think it should be adhered to for the safety of the people who might not be aware of these pyrotechnic devices," he added.

Dewhurst said he was sure that most local governments already had appropriate regulations in place.

"However, we should make certain that all areas of the state are able to implement measures that ensure the safety of all of our citizens," he added.

Great White, the band performing at the Rhode Island nightclub, has said it had permission to use pyrotechnics, which apparently ignited soundproofing behind and above the stage, causing flames to engulf the club in a matter of minutes. But the club has disputed the band's claim.

The band had three planned appearances in Texas before the nightclub fire, and it has not announced any changes to its tour dates yet.

Great White is scheduled to play at South Beach in Amarillo on March 6, Borderfest in Hildago on March 7 and Antone's in Beaumont on March 8. Phone calls to the club owners to determine if those shows are still on were not returned Monday.

But last Friday, Danny Molina, general manager of Antone's in Beaumont, said indoor pyrotechnics would no longer be allowed in the club.

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Do any of y'all believe this will affect y'all? In my district we have the Heart of Texas Speedway and every 4th of July they host a rather large firework celebration. We are out there every year and get a nice donation out of it. The State Fire Marshall's Office has someone conduct an inspection prior to it and sometimes during the show. This is the only thing I can think of that will be affected. We do not have a county fire marshall here either.

Also there is a large firework warehouse being built right off the interstate near our (so called) downtown area. We are hearing several complaints about it but there is nothing we can do about it.

Let's hear your opinions regarding this matter.