Rhode Island Fire Safety Measures Causing Confusion

PROVIDENCE, R.I. (AP) -- Stringent fire-safety measures approved after a deadly West Warwick nightclub fire have created widespread confusion affecting home sales, building projects and community celebrations, a House commission was told on Monday.

The state last year approved sprinkler, alarm and other safety requirements for nightclubs, other public buildings and some multifamily housing after The Station nightclub fire, which claimed 100 lives. Many of the requirements took effect on Feb. 20, the one-year anniversary of the fire.

``People are very confused,'' Newport real estate agent Vincent Marcello said. He claims sales through his office for two condominium units have fallen through in the past month due to disputes over who should pay to upgrade fire alarms.

Marcello added local officials are using inspections for smoke detectors required before sales of housing in some multifamily developments to identify potential code violations for fire alarms. Buyers and sellers are left to haggle, sometimes unsuccessfully, over how to pay for upgraded alarms and wiring that will be required in some multifamily buildings next year, he said.

``They don't know it (will be needed) until it is too late'' to plan for the cost, Marcello told the House Oversight Commission to Study the Ramifications of the Fire Safety Code.

Real estate agents across the state have reported similar problems, said Monica Staaf, legal counsel for the Rhode Island Association of Realtors.

Architect Kathy Bartels said building plans are being delayed in many communities, because local officials are reluctant to approve projects.

A lack of uniform standards in each community also ``makes it difficult to advise clients (on) which way to go'' in designing projects, said Bartels, president of the state chapter of the American Institute of Architects.

Some safety standards that have been in place for several years are now being applied differently in various communities, complained Ray Medley, sales manager for Warren's Telstar fireworks company.

He said he's lost at least four accounts this year, because some inspectors are enforcing tougher standards than others for fireworks displays.

``It just seems to be a state of confusion ... (about) what to enforce and when to enforce,'' he said.

State Fire Marshal Irving ``Jesse'' Owens believes many local fire inspectors are simply being cautious. He agreed, however, some inspectors are reluctant to make decisions on their own, for fear of making a mistake and being held liable.

Owens said building projects should be approved faster. He said he's working on some ideas, including requesting more staff for his office to help with plan reviews.

On Tuesday, The House Corporations Committee will consider exemptions to the new fire safety measures for some schools, churches and buildings with seasonal use, such as summer camps. Called ``common sense exemptions'' by Tom Coffey, executive director of the Fire Safety Code Board of Appeal and Review, the changes would be limited to where the law did not intend costly sprinklers or other upgrades.

Commission Chairman Joseph Trillo, R-Warwick, wants deadlines in the new law extended for multifamily housing and some public buildings, so inspectors can concentrate on nightclubs first.

``I think we bit off more than we can chew,'' Trillo said. He acknowledged after the hearing there isn't enough time left in the legislative session to delay sprinkler or alarm deadlines.

Commission member Peter Ginaitt, D-Warwick, hasn't seen any reason to extend the law's deadlines for major safety upgrades, including installing sprinklers.

He said he checked recently with the state and couldn't find any examples of building owners having used a sales tax exemption for sprinklers, fire alarms and other safety upgrades.

Marcello said many property owners aren't aware of the exemption, ``but unfortunately, it's just a drop in the bucket'' compared to what is needed.