- The Washington Times - Saturday, February 22, 2003

D.C. and Prince George's County fire officials will increase spot inspections of nightclubs this weekend after a fire in a Rhode Island club killed almst 100 people Thursday.
Prince George's County and the District routinely send fire investigators into clubs on weekend nights for safety checks, but yesterday each announced it would increase the pace of those unannounced inspections.
"We are going to be out there in force this weekend, in light of what's happened [in Rhode Island]," said Maj. Victor Stagnaro, commander of the Prince George's County Fire Prevention and Inspection Office.
At least 95 persons were killed Thursday night in a fire at a Great White concert at the Station Concert Club in West Warwick, R.I., when a pyrotechnics display used during the concert caused a fire that gutted the club.
The deadly fire in Rhode Island comes four days after 21 persons were trampled to death in an illegally operated Chicago nightclub when security guards used pepper spray to break up a fight, sending 500 customers running to emergency exits that, in some cases, were locked.
In Prince George's County, Maj. Stagnaro said normally three fire investigators work weekend nights, and the sole duty of one is to conduct spot checks. However, this weekend, seven investigators will be on duty and at least three of them will be ensuring the county's approximately 60 clubs are complying with laws governing occupancy levels and fire exits.
In the District, fire investigators, who last year were reassigned to fire engines in a cost-cutting move by the city government, will be asked to conduct compliance checks today and tomorrow in addition to their station duties, said Alan Etter, a fire and EMS spokesman.
Aside from Prince George's County and the District, the rest of the area's jurisdictions said yesterday they would not increase spot checks on clubs.
Fire officials in Fairfax County said they have no plans to assign any more than the two inspectors they already have to conduct weekend spot checks of clubs, including Jaxx in Springfield, where Great White was scheduled to have performed last night. The concert was canceled.
Alexandria and Arlington County fire officials said they have at least one roving fire inspector working 24 hours a day to conduct unannounced inspections of clubs, but neither of the jurisdictions said they would be adding additional resources.
While fireworks displays can be conducted with an event-specific permit in all local jurisdictions, those permits are usually reserved for displays in open spaces, such as at Fourth of July celebrations.
All the region's fire marshals contacted yesterday said permits would not be issued for a club-sized venue.
"We just wouldn't allow it," Alexandria Chief Fire Marshal Michael Conner said. "It just goes beyond all logic to think that would happen."
D.C. fire department Capt. Richard Fleming said the idea of including pyrotechnics in a nightclub show is troubling.
"I can't think of an instance when we would have a nightclub [that would] have a pyrotechnics display," he said. "It would have to be someplace like the MCI Center. Even then, we have a fire inspector on the scene."
The pyrotechnics used by stage performers consist of a powder charge inside a floor-mounted tube or pipe about an inch in diameter. The charge is usually ignited by an electric spark triggered by remote control and shoots a tower of flame into the air. A metal additive in the charge, such as titanium or tungsten, gives the flame a sparkling effect.
Jay Nedry, who owns Jaxx, said Great White played at his club 15 times before and never used pyrotechnics. He said he would not have allowed the band to use pyrotechnics if it had performed there last night.
According to fire officials, the band didn't have a permit that would have allowed it to use pyrotechnics during the Rhode Island concert, or at an earlier concert in New Jersey, where the same display was used.
"I wouldn't let it happen," Mr. Nedry said. "I won't play games with my license." He said he has turned down all requests by performers to use pyrotechnics since he bought the club in 1994.
Fairfax County fire department Capt. Kerwin McNamara said he would rely on club owners to stop any show that included a use of pyrotechnics.
Seth Hurwitz, owner of the 9:30 Club in Northwest, said that his club doesn't allow pyrotechnics, and that managers check with the local fire department on anything bands ask to do that would require the fire department's approval. Mr. Hurwitz's club has a capacity of about 1,000.
"There's no gain in not getting clearance from the authorities," he said. "It's like getting checked at an airport. If you're not a terrorist, you don't care."
With hundreds of nightclubs in the department's jurisdiction, some new establishments may not draw attention of fire officials until those clubs are reported for a violation, the District's Capt. Fleming said.
Also, some businesses may avoid fire-prevention requirements because they were open before any regulations were put in place by local government officials.
"Any time you have an additional level of protection, I'd recommend it. But you can't make a requirement of owners who weren't ordered by law to do something," Capt. Fleming said.

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