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.