WEST WARWICK, R.I. (AP) -- The first line of defense against a tragedy like the one that struck a Rhode Island nightclub are understaffed, overworked fire inspectors, say experts who caution that inspections are rarely as thorough as they ought to be.
Fire inspectors routinely visited The Station nightclub over the past three years but failed to note the highly flammable foam on the club's walls.
Investigators say the Feb. 20 fire started when sparks from a rock band's pyrotechnics ignited the polyurethane soundproofing, engulfing the building in flames within minutes. Nearly 100 people were killed and more than 180 injured in the blaze.
Some experts in the field say it is unfair to blame the fire on West Warwick inspector Denis Larocque, who visited the club most recently in December.
``The state fire marshal's office is grossly undermanned, and so is every fire prevention division in the state,'' said East Providence Fire Chief Gerald A. Bessette. ``Until that changes, things are going to go undetected. That's the sad truth.''
Larocque has not returned calls and, according to West Warwick's town manager, has not spoken with investigators.
New Hampshire Fire Marshal Donald Bliss, president of the National Association of State Fire Marshals, said examining wall coverings to determine their flammability is a vital part of any inspection.
Town records show Larocque cited the club for a series of minor code violations, including door that swung the wrong way, burned-out light bulbs and improperly installed fire extinguishers. All the violations appear to have been corrected.
But the documents make no mention of the foam, which experts say burns like gasoline and emits a dense, toxic smoke.
Larocque is named, along with the town, the club owners and the band, in a wrongful death lawsuit filed Tuesday by the families of two people killed in the fire. The suit accuses Larocque of negligence for failing to report the foam.
Rhode Island is one of the few states that require all fire departments to have at least one licensed fire inspector. They are typically high-ranking officers _ Larocque, 46, is a battalion chief and 25-year veteran.
Nationally, just 16 percent of fire departments have a full-time inspector on staff, according to a December 2002 study by the National Fire Prevention Association and the Federal Emergency Management Agency.
The study also showed that 7 percent of Americans _ about 21 million people, mostly in rural areas _ live in communities where no fire inspections are carried out.
Turnover in the field is high, said Gary Keith, vice president of regional operations for the Quincy, Mass.-based National Fire Prevention Association, which trains and licenses fire inspectors.
``Certainly there are a lot of firefighters who don't want any part of that job,'' Keith said. ``It's not the most glamorous career path.''
Keith said cities and towns tend to underestimate the importance of fire prevention. ``When municipal budgets get tight, unfortunately those are the areas that are the first to see cutbacks,'' he said.
In Rhode Island, cities and towns require restaurants and entertainment venues to be inspected every year before their licenses are renewed. They also require inspections when homes or businesses change hands, or are renovated or expanded.
In West Warwick, Larocque is a one-man fire prevention division in a city of around 30,000. Nearly 1,000 businesses and more than 13,000 dwellings fall under his purview. East Providence has two inspectors for a city of 50,000. In Bristol, population 24,000, the fire chief is the department's lone certified fire inspector.
Keith said many fire inspectors in other states face similar workloads.
``Inspectors are human,'' said North Kingstown Fire Marshal Joseph St. Jean. ``We can't possibly catch everything. I've got a one-hour time slot before I move on to my next inspection. I try to budget my time the best I can, but I'm overburdened.''
In the wake of the nightclub fire, Rhode Island's governor ordered inspections of bars and restaurants around the state. Since then, some bars and clubs have been temporarily shut down because of code problems.
Similar sweeps have been done around the country, and clubs in nearby Boston, as well as in Michigan and New Jersey, have been shut down.