Rhode Island Considers Fire Code Changes

PROVIDENCE, R.I. (AP) -- Like most New England states, Rhode Island is dotted with old buildings -- and many are exempt from regulations requiring the installation of sprinklers and other fire safety measures.

After the Feb. 20 fire that killed 99 people at The Station nightclub in West Warwick, the state's lawmakers are looking at eliminating those exemptions, something fire officials say should have been done a long time ago.

``I think it's time we came up with a better code,'' said East Providence Fire Chief Gerald Bessette. ``After a generation, nothing's changed.''

Rhode Island first adopted a fire code in 1968, and there have been numerous updates over the years, with major overhauls in 1976 and 1996. Under state law, a structure must meet the fire code that was in place at the time of its construction.

That means buildings built before 1968 -- like The Station -- follow the code put in place in the year they were built. As a result, some buildings can pass inspections and still keep open stairwells, untreated wooden walls and tight exits.

Many buildings also are exempt from installing sprinklers if they were built before 1976 -- the first time sprinklers were introduced in the state fire code. That's a problem, Bessette said, because owners rarely construct a new building when they open a nightclub or restaurant.

``There's not a lot of new clubs that have been built,'' he said. ``Very few restaurants have been built new. For many of them we're using the 1968 fire code.''

One proposal by lawmakers would remove the so-called grandfather provision and mandate the installation of automatic sprinklers in mid-sized buildings that fit between 50 and 300 people. Owners would have five years to comply. Similar proposals are being considered in Massachusetts, Vermont and Minnesota.

Adding sprinklers would cost about $2 to $4 per square foot, according to Donald Bliss, president of the National Association of State Fire Marshals.

But attempts to eliminate the exemptions have been thwarted in the past.

Rhode Island Fire Marshal Irving J. Owens said he pushed in 1996 -- the last time the state fire code was updated -- to do away with grandfather clauses that exempt nightclubs from some laws.

``Several times we have voiced our opinion on that. We did register our concerns with grandfathering,'' he said. ``However, when it gets through the procedure, it's still in the law.''

Hope Valley Fire Chief Frederick Stanley, the former president of the state Fire Chiefs Association, said proposals can face a tough battle in the Legislature.

``I think you get too many special interest people (elected to the legislature), people who can afford to be up there, people who possibly own businesses or hotels, motels or prominent buildings,'' he said.

But state Sen. John Celona said lawmakers don't hesitate to stand up to business interests.

``We're going through a comprehensive hearing process. At the end of that process, we're going to make Rhode Island the safest state in the country,'' said Celona, co-chairman of a state commission that is looking into The Station fire.

Some club managers said they weren't waiting for the fire codes to be updated.

Paul Voigt, the general manager of Prov, a restaurant and nightclub in downtown Providence, said the building is equipped with sprinklers, but the owners are making other renovations in light of The Station fire.

He said if clubs and restaurants are required to make renovations they should receive assistance from the state.

``We're adding extra exit signs and making the doors a bit wider, but other than that nothing major,'' Voigt said. ``We've passed all of our fire inspections.''

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