published Wednesday, February 16th, 2011

Critics call fire codes for Chattanooga 'nightclubs' vague

Chattanooga fire officials have succeeded in their push to adopt new fire codes that would require legally-defined "nightclubs" to install sprinkler systems by the end of 2013.

The bill making the change passed its first reading Tuesday night in a 6-3 City Council vote. Its second and final reading is scheduled for next week.

The revised proposal ties the tighter codes to the city's definition of a nightclub, adding specificity to the rule that was previously lacking, City Council members said, though some were still critical of the gray areas.

"We really don't know what we're voting on," said Councilman Jack Benson, who voted against the rule change.

Councilmen Russell Gilbert and Peter Murphy also voted no.

Many bar owners have said that the cost of compliance -- ranging from $60,000 to more than $100,000, depending on each building's size and layout -- would force them to shut their doors.

"We as businesses that are already established should be able to keep our business as it is ... provided reasonable life safety is maintained," said Comedy Catch owner Michael Alfano.

The new code requires buildings that meet the definition of a nightclub -- a business with live entertainment that serves alcohol between 11 p.m. and 3 a.m. to 100 or more people -- to install sprinkler systems by Dec. 31, 2013.

The revised rules will allow city Fire Marshal James Whitmire to require any nightclub to install a sprinkler system at any time if they are deemed to be habitual rule violators.

That part of the new law is still too vague for the 25-member Chattanooga Business League, said representative Jermaine Harper.

He said the change from the original, blanket proposal to one that would affect only nightclubs was not communicated to CBL members prior to the vote, despite the business owners' appeal to be part of any regulatory discussion.

"It looks like a proposed opportunity to include some and exclude others," Harper said. "As it reads today, it's very vague."

Chattanooga Fire Chief Randy Parker initially shot down proposals by council members to raise the club occupancy level to 200 from 100 and allow businesses an extra year to comply.

"That's not my recommendation," he said, though the council did eventually extend the original 2012 deadline to 2013.

Other cities in Tennessee, including Nashville, Knoxville and Memphis, have adopted the code with some variations to account for the wishes of local constituents, but Parker warned that it could open the city to litigation in case of a fatal fire.

"This is the standard code," he said. "If something happens, they're going to ask why we didn't follow the standard."

Contact staff writer Ellis Smith at esmith@timesfree or 423-757-6315.

about Ellis Smith...

Ellis Smith joined the Chattanooga Times Free Press in January 2010 as a business reporter. His beat includes the flooring industry, Chattem, Unum, Krystal, the automobile market, real estate and technology. Ellis is from Marietta, Ga., and has a bachelor’s degree in mass communication at the University of West Georgia. He previously worked at UTV-13 News, Carrollton, Ga., as a producer; at the The West Georgian, Carrollton, Ga., as editor; and at the Times-Georgian, Carrollton, ...

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cannonball said...

It's a start. Too bad this lawyer Benson didn't know what he was voting on. As for Alfano, charge another buck to get in and another buck to get your customers drunk before you turn them out into the streets of Chattanooga.

February 16, 2011 at 6:14 a.m.
inquiringmind said...

Fire codes were created for a good reason. To allow one to set up a hole in the wall and call it a "club" and just take your money for good, drink and entertainment asks for disaster. The fact these owners are crying hay can't afford to meet code is just the reality that they don't have a viable business model.

February 16, 2011 at 6:33 a.m.
harrystatel said...

I wonder who on the City Council or in City government has business connections to a fire-sprinkler company?

Harry Statel

February 16, 2011 at 8:57 a.m.
jpo3136 said...

Sprinklers are a step in the right direction. Providing for the swift extinguishing of fires and the escape of large crowds is an important part of safely operating these businesses.

February 16, 2011 at 9:23 a.m.
zwickau said...

Are these same owners now crying the same ones who worked overtime in past in their attempts to get other clubs shut down in their area? I recall the owner of the Comedy Catch crying and complaining the loudest against other establishments around and near his place of business not all that long ago. Those who go out of their way to dig holes for others comes to mind.

February 16, 2011 at 3:10 p.m.
mrredskin said...

I wonder who on the City Council that voted AGAINST requiring adequate fire protection had business connections with the nightclubs, Harry...

wait... Chattanooga has nightclubs????

February 16, 2011 at 5:14 p.m.
longarm1957 said...

The trouble with comments is that people will make comments based on emotion and not fact, since the national percentage of fires in these places is less than 2% why push something that will close business'es and kill jobs. Could the fact they want to change the look of Brainerd RD. make certain people run small business out of the area so the said property's can be purchased at a lower price, I want to know who is making money off of this !

February 17, 2011 at 4:45 p.m.
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