Relearning Old Lessons From a Night Club Tragedy

March 1, 2006

Three years after a tragic fire in a Rhode Island night club, the tour manager for a rock band has pleaded guilty to 100 counts of involuntary manslaughter, the state's fire and life safety code is being strengthened and they've eliminated the grandfather clauses that exempted existing buildings from complying with code revisions. And, it's not over yet; the club's owners have been indicted and are awaiting trial, the state fire marshal's office is being reorganized, and local jurisdictions have placed more emphasis on inspections and code enforcement.

The fire occurred on Feb. 20, 2003, in West Warwick at The Station, a one-story frame building that was dangerously overcrowded with a typical gathering of young people having a good time. They had come to hear Great White, a popular heavy metal rock group that was well known for the pyrotechnic display that was part of their performance. When the tour manager set it off, sparks spread to flammable foam soundproofing that quickly began to burn. There was panic, an instant flashover and the building was fully involved when the first fire companies arrived on the scene; 100 people died and many more were injured.

Daniel Biechele, the tour manager, claims he had permission from the club's owners to use the fireworks. The owners, Jeffrey and Michael Derderian, deny giving him permission and no local government permit was issued to anyone for a pyrotechnic display. (It's hard to conceive of any authority that would ever allow fireworks inside a crowded frame building.) The Derderian brothers also have been indicted on 100 counts of involuntary manslaughter and it is believed that Biechele will testify at their trial. Under terms of his plea bargain, the 29-year-old Biechele will not serve more than 10 years in prison. His minimum jail time will be determined by the court at a sentencing hearing scheduled for May.

Many of the victims' families were angered by the plea bargain; they wanted a full trial and a longer sentence. However, the state attorney general pointed out that a trial and the ensuing appeals could have dragged on for years. It's possible that some of the families will get a chance to be heard at the sentencing hearing. The important thing, according to Rhode Island fire officers I talked to, is that people are being held accountable for their negligence and the state finally can pass some stringent new laws that will apply to all buildings - old and new.

"Every code change was grandfathered because some special interest had political influence," a veteran Rhode Island fire marshal says. "Now we can close the loopholes and pass retroactive laws that have teeth in them" Places of public assembly will have sprinklers regardless of when they were built." The state always had strong codes for fire alarm systems, but lagged behind in other aspects of fire prevention and life safety. The state fire marshal's office is being strengthened, but has been placed under control of the state police. The fire organizations are hopeful that it's only a temporary arrangement and that the governor will heed their request for the office to be led and staffed from the ranks of the fire service.

The tragedy at The Station is another horrible example of old lessons that went unheeded. Over the years, there have been so many terrible night club fires that you'd think by now every jurisdiction would require sprinklers in the clubs. But many don't and all over the country people are packed into night clubs that are potential death traps. Without sprinklers, crowd control and proper exits, they are disasters waiting to happen.

On another front, here's some good news: after years of struggling with many disappointments and setbacks, Congress finally has passed - and the President is expected to sign - legislation that will open the 700 MHz spectrum for public-safety communications. Along with doubling the number of frequencies available to fire departments and other emergency services, the new spectrum will improve the quality of communications, which often have failed in crisis situations.

But it's not going to happen overnight. Congress set Feb. 19, 2009, as the deadline for commercial broadcasters to complete the conversion from analog to digital technology and clear the channels that have been designated for public safety. Three years seems like a long time, but fire departments now have a hard date to target and can begin making realistic plans to upgrade or replace their current radio systems. It took a coalition of fire and police organizations, led by the International Association of Fire Chiefs, a lot more than three years to make this happen and they deserve praise and thanks from the entire fire-rescue service.

Hal Bruno, a Firehouse contributing editor, retired as political director for ABC News in Washington and served almost 40 years as a volunteer firefighter. He is a director of the Chevy Chase, MD, Fire Department and chairman of the National Fallen Firefighters Foundation.

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