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Some venues skirt sprinkler laws with closets

New Hampshire Sunday News

February 16. 2013 11:52PM

Some businesses offering live entertainment in Manchester and Laconia have installed closets so they could get under the 100-person occupancy threshold that requires sprinklers, according to fire officials.

Laconia Fire Chief Kenneth Erickson said a 2004 state law, passed after the deadly Rhode Island nightclub fire in 2003 claimed 100 lives, wasn't tough enough and allowed "quite a few" businesses to alter their space to avoid sprinklers by shrinking their square footage used to calculate occupancy.

Erickson said the state law also gives fire chiefs "way too much authority" on which establishments should have sprinkler systems.

"You can have a VFW with no sprinklers that occasionally has a wedding and that's legitimate" with a band, he said. "They're not required to have sprinklers, but the guy down the street who does it basically seven days a week" needs to have sprinklers.

"There was no logic to it; if you're going to do it, do it across the board," Erickson said. 'We're gambling on when the fire's going to be."

A recent nightclub fire in Brazil that killed more than 230 put the spotlight back on clubs and fire safety.

Peter Lennon, a senior inspector with the Manchester Fire Department, said around 100 restaurants, bars and clubs that provide live entertainment operate in buildings with sprinklers.

"You can construct your way out of it," Lennon said. "We are aware of instances where that happened in the city, but it's within the code."

Neither department wanted to name specific establishments.

State Deputy Fire Marshal John Raymond said legislators adopted National Fire Protection Agency codes. He said fire chiefs are allowed to evaluate establishments on an individual basis.

"What they're looking for in these clubs is it has to have low-level lighting, loud music and the main thing is not dining; it's a nightclub setting," Raymond said. "It gives latitude to a fire chief to make a determination if it fits into those things."

Raymond said the 2004 changes improved club safety 100 percent because "sprinklers save lives."

In either the Brazil or Rhode Island fires, one or two sprinkler heads might have suppressed the fire and saved lives, Raymond said.

"You wouldn't have head the heavy smoke conditions" that proved so lethal to patrons, he said.

Raymond said he doesn't know whether the Brazil fire will lead to any code changes.

Leonard said the 2004 change in New Hampshire law led "a handful" of Manchester clubs offering music "to close rather than meet the sprinkler requirement."

Laconia's chief said he saw some business owners alter their practices.

"We've got a couple places that were required to put sprinklers in, and they opted not to have live bands," Erickson said.

Manchester inspectors check all restaurants, clubs and bars at least twice a year. They visit clubs during busy nights to check to see whether they exceed their maximum occupancy and to ensure building doors operate outward to allow patrons to escape in a fire, Lennon said.

Costs for sprinkler systems vary widely, based on the building size and whether it is new construction or installed in an existing building, officials said.

Erickson said sprinklers retrofitted with a fire alarm system in his three-story fire station costs less than $70,000.

Raymond said people often don't know how a sprinkler system works.

"Sprinkler heads, they don't all go off," Raymond said. "They go off one by one as they're needed" based on heat in a particular area.

Erickson wants the law more uniform.

"They put the burden on the fire chief and in some towns, you could have a town with an all-volunteer fire department and he doesn't enforce the law," Erickson said.

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