Saturday, February 22, 2003

Club scene is busy, but so are local inspectors


Patrons wonder: Could it happen here?

By Jim Knippenberg
The Cincinnati Enquirer

Cincinnati bar and club owners tried to reassure patrons Friday that their establishments are as safe as can be because, as one owner put it, "we have a group of tough, very conservative inspectors who look at everything. Nothing gets past them."

DEADLIEST CLUB FIRES
Some of the deadliest fires at U.S. clubs and dance halls:
492 dead, Cocoanut Grove club, Boston, Nov. 28, 1942. Cause unknown.
198, Rhythm Night Club dance hall, Natchez, Miss., April 23, 1940. Cause unknown.
165, Beverly Hills Supper Club, Southgate, Ky., May 28, 1977. Defective wiring.
87, Happy Land Social Club in New York City, March 25, 1990. Arson.
40, dance hall in West Plains, Mo., April 13, 1928 (explosion). Cause unknown.
32, Upstairs Bar in New Orleans, June 24, 1973. Arson.
25, Puerto Rican Social Club in New York City, Oct. 24, 1976. Arson.
24, Gulliver's Discotheque in Port Chester, N.Y., June 30, 1974. Arson fire in nearby bowling alley spread to disco.
The Associated Press
Inspections are conducted by the Cincinnati Fire Department and its staff of 780 firefighters. The minimum standard is to inspect any establishment with a liquor license at least once every six months.

More popular clubs - or those with a history of flouting fire codes - can expect to see an inspector as often as six times a year.

Indoor pyrotechnics, the apparent cause of the West Warwick, R.I., fire that killed at least 96, aren't much of an issue in Cincinnati because they require permits that are extremely difficult to come by.

Kentucky does not require a permit. Cities are allowed to issue them, but local officials are reluctant to do so.

The only show in memory that used indoor pyrotechnics was Ted Nugent's at Bogart's.

"We do allow pyrotechnics, but there are very strict requirements," said Kevin Blum of Clear Channel Entertainment, Bogart's booking group. "We require one month's notice from the band; we require that the permits be in hand two weeks in advance. There has to be fire personnel, including a fire marshal, on the premises at all times."

Covington and Newport have ordinances requiring that pyrotechnics be approved by their respective fire departments.

Covington Fire Chief Joe Heringhaus said he receives few such requests. The last request was for 22 tabletop sparklers set off by Rozzi's Famous Fireworks for a 2001 event at Cincinnati Marriott at River Center.

Newport Fire Chief Larry Atwell says it has been years since he received a request to use indoor pyrotechnics.

"I approved that request, but I wouldn't approve the same request if it came across my desk again," he said. "I plan on proposing the city ban all indoor pyrotechnics after what happened in Rhode Island."

Sally Weisman of First Run Restaurant and Bar in the Miami University college town of Oxford would go even further.

"When I was in high school, several people I knew died in the Beverly Hills fire," she said. "I wouldn't let a DJ burn a candle on stage. I'm extremely sensitive."

First Run averages about 500 students on a Friday or Saturday night. The bar has a crowd-control staff and several exits to ensure patrons' safety.

Weisman expressed disbelief over the Rhode Island fire. "Pyrotechnics is something you do in a coliseum with 25 roadies there to watch it. It is just heartbreaking."

Patrons also are rethinking their habits.

"I think I'll be more aware now," said Lisa James, 23, of Clifton, who was walking to downtown's Lava at Eighth and Main streets Friday night. "I do tend to watch where I am in clubs. A lot of the clubs downtown are on the small side and stuff can go wrong quickly if it's going to go wrong. I just hope the club owners are more aware of what they need to do so nothing like that happens here."

With or without pyrotechnics, fire safety remains a concern, club owners say, because the region's bar scene is such a busy one.

On any given night of the week, there is live music - jazz rock, blues, rap, country - in hundreds of Tristate nightclubs from Fairfield to Northern Kentucky.

Most are local acts, drawing no more than a few dozen fans. But the past few years have seen a boom in national names in the clubs. Not long ago, only Bogart's in Corryville and Annie's in the East End offered such acts.

Today, concerts drawing crowds from the hundreds to more than 1,000 can be found at Newport's Southgate House; Covington's Madison Theater; the 20th Century in Oakley; and at smaller nightspots, such as Lucille's Blues Club in Latonia, the Blue Wisp Jazz Club, BarrelHouse Brewing Co. in Over-the-Rhine and the University of Cincinnati-area's Mad Frog.

This weekend's Phish shows at U.S. Bank Arena are attracting a half-dozen national club headliners on both sides of the river.

That busy scene is why many owners began reviewing club safety when they heard about both the Rhode Island fire and Monday's trampling at Chicago's E2 that left 21 dead.

"The first thing I did this morning was get with our operations guy and checked everything," said Mike Cromer, owner of BarrelHouse Brewing Co., host to at least three live shows a week. "We checked fire extinguishers, exits, bulbs in the exit signs, the sprinklers, the works.

"We want our people to have fun, but we also want them to get home safely. The fire department inspects twice a year, and we've never had a violation."

In Newport, Mary Kummler, manager of York Street CafÈ, did a walk-through last week.

"I thought about Chicago all the way to work the day I heard about it, especially because our entertainment space is on the second floor. But what it came down to is we already have three exits and three windows leading to fire escapes, so there's really no comparison."

Bob Schneider of River City Alpine Development Group owns five buildings that house clubs in Over-the-Rhine. One of them, Jefferson Hall, has live music, mostly rock, nightly. Another, Rhythm and Blues CafÈ, has it every weekend.

He believes Cincinnati is safer than most cities because of a strict fire code and strict enforcement of its rules.

Cincinnati handles enforcement somewhat differently than other cities. Rather than a centralized fire prevention bureau inspect each location, fire companies are responsible for inspecting establishments in their neighborhoods. For that reason, District Fire Chief Fred Prather said, he was unable to immediately provide inspection records for some of the city's most popular nightspots.

"We're better than a lot of places because of the Who concert and the Beverly Hills Supper Club fire," said Joseph W. Diebold, president of Cincinnati Firefighters Union Local 48.

"With both those tragedies happening in the Tristate, I think we've always been more aware of the dangers."

Those two events, Schneider agrees, set the stage for stricter codes.

"Both Jefferson and RNB are in 130-year-old buildings, but when we redid them 15 years ago, we had to abide by the requirements of Article 34, governing the rehab of old buildings, and those rules are stringent," he said.

"They cover the number of exits, fire walls, fire doors, hard wiring, width of exits, width of staircases, limited area sprinkling systems between floors and in the mechanical rooms. Even though they're 130-year-old buildings, in terms of safety they're 15 years old.

"I don't know that there's anything more we could do, but if there was, we'd certainly do it."

City code requires that all exits have illuminated signs visible from anywhere in the room. Most club owners think there's no need to remind patrons of exit locations, even on crowded weekend nights.

Emergency lighting is required as well, such as the system BarrelHouse owner Cromer put in. It's battery-powered with lights over the doors as well as floor lighting leading to exits.

But a few operators think they can do more.

Bill Georgeton, manager of Annie's, thinks "people tend to go out the way they came in, and that's through the front doors. But we have five other exits, all marked. I've already instructed the staff to remind people of them, and I'm going to hang signs in the club directing people to them.

"When you're operating a club and the public is involved, safety has to be your No. 1 concern," he said.

Jim Gilliece, owner of Covington's Chez Nora and its third-floor showroom, thinks that's a good idea. "I've instructed our staff to remind patrons where the exits are and to keep aisles clear," he said.

When citations are issued for violations, they're generally addressed quickly. In the spring of 2002, Newport's Southgate House got four citations and was told to repair emergency lighting, replace missing outlet covers, protect wiring from possible damage and replace missing ceiling tiles. In August, it was cited again for emergency lighting, but the other three had been corrected.

Three months later, its Nov. 19 inspection was clean.

The venue takes safety seriously, said bartender Karen Van Zant, who said the house had been thoroughly checked Friday morning in advance of the evening's sold-out (500) show from Sleater Kinney, an all-female punk band.

Bogart's, the area's largest club with 1,464 capacity, also takes safety seriously, Blum says.

"I did a walk-through this morning (Friday) of both Bogart's and the Taft. I checked the emergency lighting a couple times, checked the sprinklers, lights in the exit signs. Safety has to be a concern when you have this many people coming in."

Said Schneider: "Let me tell you how seriously the fire department takes safety issues here. They pop in unexpectedly, and if they see your illuminated exit sign has a burned-out bulb, they'll tell you to change it or they'll shut you down.

"I've also seen them go to the man at the door, you know he usually has a clicker to keep track of how many come in, and look at his count. If they don't like it, they won't let anyone else in until someone leaves."

Ken Alltucker, Jim Hannah, Jon Gambrel, Marie McCain and Larry Nager contributed.

E-mail jknippenberg@enquirer.com







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