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Probe sparks city push for nightclub fire sprinklers

Some venue owners likely to resist City Council resolution


by: TRIBUNE PHOTO: JONATHAN HOUSE - Berbati on Southwest Ankeny Street, unlike many Portland nightclubs, has installed overhead sprinklers. Some time in the next few weeks, Commissioner Dan Saltzman will propose a City Council resolution to require sprinklers at all the city’s nightclubs, discos, dance halls and indoor festival sites where more than 100 people gather.

The resolution will be controversial, and comes, Saltzman says, as a direct result of a Tribune investigation into Old Town nightclubs. If the ordinance is adopted, about 60

establishments could have to install automatic sprinkler systems at a estimated cost of $20,000 each.

Saltzman assumed responsibility for Portland Fire & Rescue in June when Mayor Charlie Hales reassigned the city’s bureaus to commissioners. He says that until the Tribune stories he wasn’t aware that Portland did not require nightclubs in older buildings to install sprinkler systems. Seattle has required retrofitting nightclubs with sprinkler systems since 2005.

Washington, along with a host of municipalities, acted in the wake of the tragic 2003 Station nightclub blaze in Warwick, R.I. That fire killed 100 people in an old building that had not been outfitted with sprinklers. More recently, a January fire in a nightclub in Santa Maria, Brazil, killed more than 200 people.

“I would feel terrible on my watch as the fire commissioner if I didn’t do this and some tragedy happened,” Saltzman says.

Once or twice a decade, a nightclub becomes the scene of a tragedy, and efforts to require sprinklers in older buildings follow, says Robert Solomon, division manager for building and life safety codes for the Boston-based National Fire Protection Association, a nonprofit that advocates for fire protection and develops consensus standards for municipalities around the world.

NFPA data show that nationwide, 23 percent of “public assembly properties,” which includes nightclubs, have sprinkler systems. Solomon says there is no precise data on how many cities and states require sprinklers in nightclubs, but the motivation behind measures such as Saltzman’s is clear.

“There is no jurisdiction that wants to be the next Station nightclub. No building official, mayor or council wants to be standing there explaining how this happened in their city,” Solomon says.

He says that as predictable as the calls for sprinklers are after each fire tragedy, the pushback from nightclub owners is nearly as predictable. Portland fire officials estimate there are 50 or 60 local clubs with capacities of more than 100 patrons, but no sprinklers, because no local or state ordinance requires retrofitting in older buildings. Most of the city’s downtown and Old Town nightclubs rent space in historic buildings.

by: TRIBUNE PHOTO: JONATHAN HOUSE - Portland Fire Marshal Nate Takara has been tasked with drawing up a resolution that can gain City Council approval and pacify nightclub owners likely to object to the cost of installing sprinklers

Upfront costs

Cities that have overcome the objections of club owners have offered two primary incentives, according to Solomon. First, they don’t require clubs to install the expensive sprinkler systems immediately. Instead, they give clubs as long as two years to amortize the expense and complete the installation.

Some cities also have used tax incentives to encourage cooperation, according to Solomon. In one example, he says, if a club spends $30,000 on the sprinklers, raising its building’s value by $30,000, the $30,000 improvement is taken off the building’s tax valuation.

Demanding that nightclubs immediately install sprinkler systems would be devastating to some club owners, says Donald Sexton, owner of the Silverado on Southwest Third Avenue.

“You’d put most people out of business, they simply couldn’t afford it,” he says.

Sexton speaks from experience. He paid about $50,000 to install a basement and ground-floor sprinkler system at the Silverado’s old location on Southwest 12th Avenue more than two decades ago. The configuration of the older building made the installation complicated and expensive, Sexton says. The Silverado’s current location had a sprinkler system in place when the club moved in about six years ago.

Sexton says sprinklers in nightclubs are important.

“You feel like you’re saying a terrible thing if you say you can’t afford it and there’s a fire and ... and ...,” Sexton says. “It’s very tough.”

Sexton says giving club owners a reasonable amount of time to complete installations would help. He also suggests a halfway grandfathering clause in the City Council resolution.

Under city laws, new buildings, or older buildings that are remodeled, require sprinkler systems. Sexton says a compromise might require sprinklers when the ownership of a nightclub changes.

“At that point you’re going to sit down and say, ‘It’s going to cost me X number of dollars. How am I going to project the revenue?’ “ Sexton says. “That would be upfront. You look, and you build it in, and you make the determination before you get into the business.”

Mike Wolfson, owner of three Portland clubs including Rotture on Southeast Third Avenue, says most owners of big clubs that he knows would support putting in sprinkler systems. Wolfson says he has voluntarily retrofitted Rotture with sprinklers.

“Once you have a sprinkler system if you have a fire the chance of people getting hurt is so dramatically reduced, why wouldn’t you do it,” Wolfson says.

by: TRIBUNE PHOTO: JONATHAN HOUSE - Portland Fire Chief Erin Janssens says automated fire sprinklers  could help prevent fire emergencies

A grace period

Saltzman has directed Fire Chief Erin Janssens and Fire Marshal Nate Takara to draft the City Council resolution. Takara says he has talked to Seattle officials and heard that giving club owners time to install sprinkler systems is crucial.

“We’ll be reasonable,” he says.

Takara says Seattle officials told him that the majority of nightclub owners there installed sprinkler systems as required, but a number did not.

“Mentally, some of the nightclub owners thought that with time, maybe the ordinance would go away,” Takara says.

Some small nightclubs waited until the 18-month grace period ended, hoping for a reprieve, Takara says, and then closed their doors.

Most of the resolution will be based on the national regulation crafted by the NFPA after the Station nightclub fire. Takara says it is unlikely that the city’s large-capacity restaurants will be included in the proposed ordinance.

The Tribune stories looked at two Old Town ground-floor nightclubs in buildings that were otherwise abandoned and dangerous. According to Takara, the new resolution might not require that all older buildings have sprinklers throughout. Buildings with enough fire separation sheetrock between floors might have their upper stories exempted.

Janssens says she supports Saltzman’s decision to pursue retrofitting Portland nightclubs with automated sprinklers.

“Our primary goal is keeping people safe,” she says. “This is a very affordable and effective way to do that. We believe strongly in trying to prevent emergencies from occurring in the first place.”