Sunday, March 9, 2003

Limited staffing impeding city fire inspections

Some nightclub visits overdue

By Ken Alltucker
The Cincinnati Enquirer

As bodies still were being carried from a Rhode Island nightclub two weeks ago, Cincinnati fire officials said their tough inspection standards were enough to ward off such a tragedy here. But an Enquirer review of fire department inspection records shows that one of every four of the city's 35 biggest and most popular nightspots is overdue for the department's minimum twice-a-year review.

More clubs might be overdue save for a flurry of inspections since the Rhode Island fire.

The records also show at least two nightclubs don't have maximum-occupancy levels posted, a fact that was either overlooked or unnoted in recent fire-inspection reports.

A club with a history of fire and building code violations - Bar Cincinnati in the Main Street entertainment district - was ordered closed briefly Friday before bar owners fixed problems cited by another city agency, the Department of Buildings and Inspections.

Fire inspections are a first line of defense in preventing such tragedies as the Rhode Island nightclub fire that killed 99 and a trampling at a Chicago nightclub that left 21 dead.

District Fire Chief Fred Prather, who oversees Cincinnati's fire-prevention efforts, conceded that not all inspections are up to date. He cited a lack of manpower.

In particular, he blamed a rule change two years ago that requires four-person crews to staff all fire engines, trucks and other apparatus to ensure the safety of the crews. The department's 780 firefighters, who double as inspectors, simply don't have enough time to get to every club, he said. Each firehouse is responsible for inspecting and maintaining its own paper records for neighborhood bars and clubs.

The four-man minimum has had an adverse effect, Prather said. "Our inspections have decreased since then."

But Prather said the most serious violators are checked regularly until they fix fire-code violations. Clubs with a history of abuses can expect to see a crew drop by as often as six times a year, he said.

Memories of Beverly Hills

Cincinnati's inspection standards long have been hailed as some of the toughest in the Midwest. Many of those requirements were strengthened after the 1977 Beverly Hills Supper Club fire in Southgate that claimed 165 lives.

Prather oversees a staff of seven experts, who focus on specific areas, such as high-rise office or residential buildings and schools, or determining how many people can safely fit into a building.

Other inspection duties are farmed out to neighborhood fire companies, who must check all neighborhood bars, concert halls and venues that hold 50 or more people.

That double duty of responding to emergency medical calls and putting out fires while also checking clubs for fire hazards can be demanding.

Before the four-man rule, fire companies could respond to emergency calls with three-person crews, leaving a fourth person to complete scheduled inspections, Prather said.

Cincinnati isn't alone.

A December 2002 survey by the National Fire Prevention Association found that most departments nationwide struggle with inadequate resources dedicated to fire prevention.

Like Cincinnati, most mid-sized cities depend on firefighters to conduct inspections, as opposed to hiring trained fire inspectors.

"The usual objection is that firefighters won't be as well-trained, so they will miss things," said John Hall, assistant vice president overseeing fire analysis and research for NFPA.

"Firefighters can do that if they have the right kind of training," he said. "The department needs to make sure that they are not only giving inspections to all the properties, but that the inspections need to be as high quality as possible."

Inspections overdue

In the wake of the Feb. 20 Rhode Island nightclub fire, the Enquirer requested fire department inspection records for 35 of the most popular bars and nightclubs in Cincinnati. Those records indicate that at least nine clubs haven't been inspected over the past six months - the department's minimum requirement.

Of the remaining clubs, 11 have been checked by fire crews since Feb. 20.

The records also indicate that such inspections overburden not only the firefighters, but also Prather's crew of seven experts.

For instance, just one inspector is responsible for creating about 1,800 minimum-occupancy signs per year. Both Paul Brown Stadium's Club West Lounge and 20th Century Theater in Oakley were missing those signs.

Occupancy limits are supposed to be set when any club, restaurant or entertainment venue holding 50 or more people opens. The limit is intended to prevent overcrowding, and to allow a manageable flow of people out of the building in case of emergency.

Prather said a building that doesn't have an occupancy permit or maximum-posting listing is occupied illegally.

Eric Brown, who manages Paul Brown Stadium and the Club West Lounge, said the fire department never told him about the requirement in the club's two-plus years of operation.

"That is up to the fire department, and they haven't gotten us any information at all," Brown said. He said his company keeps an eye on the club's occupancy.

"I think the largest event we had was 1,200 to 1,300 people for the Cinergy Field implosion," Brown said. "We use good common sense."

Brown said he doesn't think the stadium lounge is a fire risk. The stadium is equipped with fire extinguishers and a sprinkler system, he said.

"We're state-of-the-art."

The 20th Century Theater on Madison Road has had various uses over the years, including as a church and shop. Although the former movie theater has been used for concerts and weddings for five years, the fire department hasn't posted how many can safely fit into the building since its use changed.

"The fire department rated it at 309 when the church was here," said owner Mark Rogers.

"That was the church. So we just call it at 300."

Rogers said he's installed a new sprinkler system and ensured that exits are clear of debris. Construction workers are installing an air-conditioning system and bathrooms, after which Rogers expects to get the fire department's occupancy posting.

Tough decisions

Among the clubs that haven't been inspected in recent years are several Main Street favorites. Kaldi's Coffee House, Have a Nice Day Cafe and BarrelHouse Brewery are among the businesses that need an updated inspection.

Bar Cincinnati, however, has been a frequent target of city and building inspectors. Past violations include lack of exit sign lighting, unrestrained gas bottles, and basement waste.

Prather said the fire department reviewed Bar Cincinnati's operations about two months ago but ultimately decided against closing the Main Street bar. He took the unusual step of personally reviewing the bar's safety.

"I went down there, and they had basically taken care of our issues," Prather said.

The city's other chief inspection agency - buildings and inspections - ordered the bar shut Friday for illegal electrical splices, improperly using the basement and blocking handicap bathroom stalls. Building and fire inspectors allowed the bar to be reopened Friday night after owners made repairs.

Prather said it's a difficult decision to order a bar closed, and said inspectors need a strong reason for making such a step.

"When we stop somebody's means of living, we have to have a pretty good reason," he said. "It can't be flimsy."

It's also difficult to judge the safety of buildings that existed long before fire codes. Arnold's Bar & Grill, which opened in 1848, has a narrow stairwell that doesn't meet modern standards. Owner Ronda Roell said inspectors told her to reduce the restaurant's upstairs maximum occupancy from 70 to 40.

"I can't rebuild my steps," she said. "The fire department took that into consideration and reduced my occupancy levels."

The fire department also is reviewing the limit for Arnold's outdoor garden.

Finding a balance

Inspectors have shown tenacity regarding clubs with a history of problems, the records show.

Inspectors made repeated trips to the Mad Frog nightclub in Mount Auburn three years ago after finding several hazards, including a lack of sign postings, bad batteries for a lighted exit sign and loose wires in the basement. Club owners fixed the problems after two return visits from fire inspectors, and the club has remained violation-free over the past five inspections.

Prather said inspectors must strike a balance between being reasonable to business owners, and ensuring safety for their patrons.

"At the end of the day, I have to be able to go home and sleep at night," Prather said. "Now can I do that knowing there's a hazardous situation out there? We have to address the problems."


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