- The Washington Times - Friday, February 28, 2003

D.C. police and fire officials told dozens of nightclub managers yesterday that plans are under way to re-inspect every one of the District's 600 nightclubs to prevent accidents like those in Rhode Island and Chicago this month that caused the deaths of more than 100 people.

Deputy Fire Chief Kenneth Ellerbe, the District's fire marshal, told the club owners that the process already has begun and that clubs will be inspected at least twice by appointment during the day and by surprise at night.

"We're not trying to sneak up on anybody," Chief Ellerbe said.

"The reason to work with nightclub owners is to prevent those [accidents] from happening in the District of Columbia," said Chief Ellerbe, referring to the fire in the West Warwick, R.I., nightclub that killed nearly 100 persons and the Chicago nightclub where 21 persons were trampled to death when guards used pepper spray to break up a fight.

The club owners were given a list of violations to watch out for, the most serious ones being locked or obstructed exits, as well as overcrowding.

"The fire department has been very cooperative," said Frederic Harwood, executive director of the newly formed D.C. Licensed Beverage Association.

D.C. nightclub owners said yesterday they are cooperating to prevent disasters such as the one in Chicago, where most of the fatalities were caused when nearly 500 customers stormed the club's main exit to escape the fumes and trampled some to death.

In Rhode Island, at least 97 persons were killed at the Station nightclub when a pyrotechnics display used by the rock band Great White caused a fire that gutted the nightclub.

"Those isolated incidents have raised the level of awareness," Chief Ellerbe said yesterday, adding that four inspectors have been returned to the fire-prevention office and will inspect nightclubs. "And we hope to have 17 more soon," he said.

Last year, fire investigators were reassigned to fire engines in a cost-cutting move by the city. They were instructed and trained to conduct daytime and nighttime inspections of nightclubs and restaurants. They were to continue those duties when they did not have to make emergency runs on firetrucks.

Chief Ellerbe said station duties had prevented full-scale inspections.

As reported in The Washington Times on Wednesday, the fire marshal announced that four firefighters would return to fire prevention in the next two weeks and will inspect nightclubs to make sure they are observing occupancy limits and that exit doors are clear. He said inspectors also would perform regular inspections during the day, as they had before they were detailed to station duty.

There are at least 16 safety checks to be made, from blocked or locked exits and counting seats to guarding against too many customers, which would prevent swift exits.

When inspectors find violations, they leave a written notice and a deadline for repair. If repairs are not made, inspectors may issue a fine, the fire marshal said.

"We will respond immediately if we find a locked exit," Chief Ellerbe said.

"Overcrowding is most common," he said. "We would caution owners who have a tendency to allow overcrowding."

The nighttime inspections are unscheduled. Inspectors may show up at any time when an establishment is open to make certain that regulations are obeyed.

The possibility of fireworks being set off as happened in Rhode Island is unlikely in the District, Chief Ellerbe said.

"It's not done very often in the city," he said, adding that owners would have to obtain a permit, which would come only after an inspector checked the establishment and its insurance.

The permits are issued by the fire department only after the clubs and fireworks are analyzed and determined to be safe. Applications must be made at least 72 hours in advance, and two fire marshals must be in attendance when the show goes on, department spokesman Alan Etter said.

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.

The District's pyrotechnic rules require permits to even light candles at tables. Ashtrays are required if smoking is allowed. Decorations and drapes must be noncombustible or flame retardant.

"We need a dialogue with the fire department to express our concerns and to hear their concerns," said Mr. Harwood, who has led entertainment organizations for rules and laws that would encourage the trade without annoying residents.

"Our paramount concern is with the safety of our patrons," Mr. Harwood said.

•  This article is based in part on wire service reports.

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