published Wednesday, January 19th, 2011

New rule could close dozens of Chattanooga bars

  • photo
    Sprinkler fitter Derek Swanson, with Mission Fire Sprinkler LLC, installs a sprinkler head in the Strauss Building which is being renovated to be a restaurant in downtown Chattanooga.
    Staff Photo by Dan Henry

The city could shut down dozens of local businesses at the end of 2012, including the Station House restaurant at the Chattanooga Choo-Choo, if owners do not install costly sprinkler systems, according to a new code the City Council is considering.

The rule change, backed by Chattanooga Fire Marshal James Whitmire, requires that existing sports bars, restaurants with live entertainment, dance halls, discotheques, nightclubs and "assembly occupancies with festival seating" install sprinkler systems. The cost is $2 to $12 per square foot, or an average of $50,000 to $70,000 per business with an occupancy over 100, officials say.

The City Council on Tuesday night deferred action on the code for two weeks to allow the city attorney's office time to set a definition of "nightclubs" affected by the ordinance.

Matt Lewis, co-owner of the new Honest Pint on Patten Parkway, said he would have canceled plans to open the restaurant if he, rather than the owner, had been forced to pay for the Honest Pint's $60,000 sprinkler installation.

"We would have walked away if they had made us do that," he said.

Some City Council members worry the new regulations could be "a real hardship" on business owners.

"On the new buildings, I can understand, but with the old buildings that's a lot of hardship they're going to put on them in this economy," Councilman Jack Benson said. "We've got to see how necessary this is and only do what's absolutely necessary."

Manny Rico, chairman of the City Council, said the measure was a "no brainer."

"If it affects even one of my businesses, I don't want that," he said.

Capt. Seth Miller, who presented the fire marshal's plan to the City Council and a variance board meeting, was at a loss to name a nightclub fire in Chattanooga that had killed patrons.

"I can't remember one," Miller said.

Nor could Whitmire, who was appointed in October. He said the office is "being proactive."

"What's the dollar value of a human life?" he asked.

As evidence of the danger, the fire marshal's office distributed a handout listing recent nightclub fires in Russia, Thailand and China.

Miller also presented a video to the City Council of the Rhode Island nightclub fire that killed 100 people eight years ago. He said the fire at The Station club there would have been far less deadly had sprinklers been installed.

Just the possibility of such a fire occurring in Chattanooga is enough to warrant the new rule, argued Deputy Chief Lamar Flint, who served as interim fire marshal before Whitmire.

"The safety of individuals far outweigh the cost, and that's the perspective of our office," Flint said.


Deadliest U.S. public assembly and nightclub fires:

• Iroquois Theater, Chicago; Dec. 30, 1903; Deaths: 602

• Cocoanut Grove nightclub, Boston; Nov. 28, 1942; Deaths: 492

• Conway's Theater, Brooklyn, N.Y.; Dec. 5, 1876 Deaths: 285

• Rhythm Club dance hall, Natchez, Miss.; April 23, 1940; Deaths: 207

• Rhoads Opera House, Boyertown, Pa.; Jan. 13, 1908; Deaths: 170

• Ringling Brothers and Barnum & Bailey circus tent, Hartford, Conn.; July 6, 1944; Deaths: 168

• Beverly Hills Supper Club, Southgate, Ky.; May 28, 1977; Deaths: 165

• The Station nightclub, West Warwick, R.I.; Feb. 20, 2003; Deaths: 100

• Happy Land Social Club, Bronx, N.Y.; March 25, 1990; Deaths: 87

• Richmond Theater, Richmond, Va.; Dec. 26, 1811; Deaths: 72

Under the current code, new or significantly renovated buildings are required to upgrade their fire safety systems to meet minimum standards.

The new code proposed by Whitmire upgrades the sprinkler requirements to cover all "A2 assembly occupancy" buildings, even those with no new renovations or changes of use.

"In a new building, it's not that hard to do. In an old building it's a much tougher process," said Bill Mish, chairman of the board of the Tennessee Hospitality Association.

It's also a more expensive process.

Joe Sliger of Eastman Construction said it would be a "deal breaker" for some of the buildings he owns.

"If the installation costs more than the building is worth, I'd be better off shutting it down," Sliger said.

The new code essentially would give the fire marshal absolute power to decide who stays in business and who goes bankrupt, he added, which would be unfair if it were not uniformly enforced.

"I don't think there has ever been any kind of revised building code that applied to existing buildings where no other work has been done," Sliger said.

Sliger's company worked on renovating the former Brass Register on Georgia Avenue into a Jefferson's sports bar. Building co-owner Fred Robinson said the unexpected addition of a sprinkler system almost stopped the renovation process entirely.

The bill came to $65,400, not including electrical components, he said.

"If some of these out-of-the-way, low-volume locations have to meet [sprinkler requirements], it's going to make the building worth nothing as a restaurant, or cause them to change the use or drop the alcohol," Robinson said.

At the City Council meeting Tuesday, Luken Construction's Russ Elliott expressed worry about the effect of creeping regulation on that company's extensive office holdings, which officials claimed would not be affected by the ordinance.

"My worry is that this may boomerang around and hit other occupancies," Elliott said, though officials assured him that was not the case.


Speaking to the City Council, Miller emphasized the tragedy of the fire at The Station nightclub in Rhode Island, noting the speed with which it spread and the relative ease with which it could have been prevented.

He showed those in attendance an unedited video of the event, a graphic film that shows the fire engulfing the wooden building and 100 patrons within minutes.

Fire officials contend the disaster could have been prevented or lessened with a properly installed sprinkler system, among other measures.

But Chattanooga's current code, which requires sprinklers to be installed when the building's use changes, also could have prevented the loss of life at The Station, according to Rhode Island fire officials.

Michael DiMascolo, deputy chief fire marshal of the state of Rhode Island, said The Station was supposed to install sprinklers when it changed from a restaurant to a nightclub, but fire marshals did not force it to do so because of a grandfather clause.

Robert Duval, regional manager for the National Fire Protection Association, agreed that without Rhode Island's grandfather clause, The Station nightclub fire shown to council members would have been stopped under Chattanooga's current rules.

Chattanooga has no grandfather clause that would stop local officials from enforcing the current code, Whitmire said, other than his proposed two-year moratorium on enforcement.


Though some business owners would like to see a compromise, with more time for meeting the new code, Whitmire said that "the compromise is the two-year time frame we're giving them."

"He could have insisted that this be done immediately," noted Flint.

In Nashville, when similar regulations drew an initial outcry, city officials expanded the time frame to three years and upped occupancy requirements to 200, instead of the 100 proposed for Chattanooga.

"That was their choice to make on that end," Flint said. "We chose to go by what the professionals said, the people who sat down and reviewed these incidents throughout the country and the world."

But some professionals appear to come to different conclusions, said Robinson.

He cited a 2010 NFPA report that showed an average of only three deaths per year from fires that occur in eating and drinking establishments nationwide, in the period from 2004 through 2008.

The U.S. experienced an annual average of 8,520 structure fires in "eating and drinking establishments, which make up only 1.6 percent of all reported structure fires within the same time period," according to the report.

Sliger said the two-year time frame and the cost of installation mean some businesses simply may not survive the code changes.

And Mish, from his experience in the hospitality industry, added that profit margins in the restaurant industry "despite what people think, aren't that great. Every penny counts."

Gary Hilbert, head building inspector and director of the Chattanooga Land Development Office, said there would be a limited amount of flexibility for compliance. But, he said, "each business owner is going to have to evaluate this, and say, 'Is it worth it or do I just close this business down and go do something else?' It's going to have to be a business decision."

Hilbert said there is nothing better than sprinklers for giving patrons time to get out of a burning building and limiting smoke damage. And when safety is at stake, cost should be no object, he said.

However, business owners said public officials don't think like private businessmen, for whom every cost is, by necessity, of great concern.

"A big issue like that, which could literally shut a business down, everybody has to get together and make sure there's lots of public input, and make sure everyone has time to do research and respond," said Greg Adkins, executive director for the Tennessee Hospitality Association.

Safety is important, he said, "but you don't want to put businesses out of business. You don't want to put them in an employment line when we're in a fragile recovery."

Should bars and restaurants be forced to install sprinklers?
  • Yes. 53%
  • No. 47%

1209 total votes.

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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AndrewLohr said...

I doubt if I've even been in any of these 50 places, but now is no time for expensive new rules to kill jobs. Compromise? Post notices at each non-compliant place, so patrons get warned of the danger and can choose whether or not to go in. Smoking really does kill people, but they get warned, and it's legal. Let the government warn of risks, but not kill freedom and the economy with this sort of rules.

January 19, 2011 at 1:08 a.m.
slr3 said...

It was the stormwater fee last year along with a 19% increase in property taxes so we can have our "big brother" city government protect us and look out for our welfare.

This proposed ordinance is nothing more than another intrusion on free enterprise. I hope it fails and never sees the light of day.

January 19, 2011 at 4:25 a.m.
Vickie803 said...

Great idea! Put hundreds of people out of work. Everyone knows it is time to do something about all the disasterous restaurant fires we've had resulting in loss of life. I am glad our leaders recognized the problem. Empty buildings make for safe businesses.

January 19, 2011 at 7:24 a.m.
dt4c said...

Fire Marshals are just trying to justify their existence. We can't have a risk free society. Follow the money trail. My bet is that these people own some of the companies that will benefit. These useless regulation will still not save every life. Ever heard of sprinkler failure? It happens.

January 19, 2011 at 7:38 a.m.
IkeConn said...

More job killing intrusive nanny state interference. Way to go there Fire Marshal James Whitmire. Kill those jobs and while you are at it why don't you require sprinklers for churches too? What's good for the goose is good for the gander. Yea, close the churches down also unless they install sprinklers. Why stop at bars and churches? Do all the Mason Lodges have sprinklers? How about the Shrine Temple? If this applies only to bars then methinks Fire Marshal Bill has an agenda against bars and is not the least bit interested in fire safety. Anyone have a background on this guy and bars that you would be willing to share with the rest of us?

January 19, 2011 at 7:45 a.m.
jpo3136 said...

Did we not require sprinkler systems before? What were we thinking? Is there something special about these systems? These are expected, basic fixtures for operating a public building.

January 19, 2011 at 8:27 a.m.
mrredskin said...

look at all these idiotic comments about killing jobs. why should these places NOT be required to have sprinklers??? The event in RI several years ago is a great example of why you need them. It's not like all of these scenes are going to close shop. I'm sure they will save a ton on insurance once installed, anyway. if it's a profitable business, then they can live with the small amount of debt that will arise from this.

January 19, 2011 at 8:30 a.m.
hondadog said...

The night club fire in 2003 that killed 100 people did not kill 100 people because there were not fire sprinklers, but because of the illegal fireworks display the band put on. Yes, sprinklers would have helped prevent the loss, as would outlawing hand guns save lives, but that just would not be right would it? Maybe if the fire inspectors there did their job and inspected and stopped the band from setting off the fireworks that caused the fire.... huh, thats a thought, doing the job they are paid to do instead of adding additional regulation and hardships that helps them not do the job they are currently paid for.... Now dont get me wrong, fire scares the hell out of me, and I am currently saving money to install a sprinkler system in my home. It will not be cheap, but it is something I feel will help save lives.... especially since most fire related deaths happen in your home while you are sleeping.

January 19, 2011 at 8:59 a.m.
obama4president said...

The Station fire in Rhode Island, that is being given as a justification for this, was caused by pyrotechnics which ignited flammable sound insulation foam in the walls and ceilings surrounding the stage. Avoiding this kind of tragedy does not require sprinklers... banning indoor fireworks in bars would probably do it. Flammable insulation should also be banned. All of that said, sprinklers still add another level of safety.

January 19, 2011 at 9:03 a.m.
inquiringmind said...

Give a capitalist a choice to do what is best for everyone or himself, and every time the choice is for themselves.

The cost of business is just the cost of business, I don't expect the see any more or less new restaurants because of fire regulations.

A businessperson will complain about every cent that does not go into their pocket no matter what is said but a life is priceless. To have restaurants or businesses without sprinkler systems is insane.

January 19, 2011 at 9:11 a.m.
hcirehttae said...

And why exactly is it that we view bars as a positive social good? Yeah, buddy, booze it up with strangers and driiive on home, preferably through Red Bank, since they are advertising to fill three police positions.

Have dinner and drinks at home with your families!

"I'm gonna hire a wino, to decorate our home..."

January 19, 2011 at 10:11 a.m.
Leaf said...

People really have no idea about risk. The risk of death by nightclub fire is extremely remote, yet we make laws requiring sprinklers.

The risk of death by falling down stairs in your house is probably a hundred times greater. Therefore we should ban multilevel residences.

The most risky thing of all, of course, is life itself - nobody gets out alive. We should ban pregnancy.

January 19, 2011 at 1:47 p.m.
FF65 said...

Do the right thing, fire sprinkler the bars and restaurants (...and the new homes).

A business owner that does not seriously consider their patrons safety as primary does not belong in business.

Patronize fire sprinklered bars, restaurants, nightclubs, stores, outlets, malls, etc. Support the places that have YOUR safety in mind...patronize places of business that have fire sprinklers.

If you see something (like blocked "Exits" or fire extinguishers buried behind stacks of chairs)...say something!

January 19, 2011 at 4:03 p.m.
graham said...

If you are so concerned about your safety when you go to a restaurant, night club, or bar...check to see if they have sprinklers installed. If they don't, leave. If they do, stay. It's that simple.

These "public" restaurants you refer to aren't public places, they are private establishments that the public is free to enjoy.

The best thing you can do to make sure that you are going to be safe in the event of a fire anyway, is to be aware of where the exits are located.

I guarantee that those of you who feel that sprinklers should be installed by force, are the same people that vote on a bill to make smoking illegal in restaurants.

January 19, 2011 at 4:24 p.m.
jpo3136 said...

They are licensed, which means, "given permission," to do business with the public, by the public. This does not mean that they can operate whatever structure with impunity.

If they serve food, they have to have restrooms. If they have restrooms, they have to include sinks and handwashing facilities.

If they have a structure that packs hundreds of people inside, and an egress that only allows a few people at a time to leave in an emergency, then they have to provide for the rapid extinguishing of fires.

The idea that it is "not capitalist" to provide for the public's safety in a business is nonsense. Businessmen are in business as part of commerce: which is a peaceful means of making a living. That includes giving your customers a reasonable chance to survive escaping the building in the event of an emergency.

If you can't provide for the reasonable escape of everyone inside, don't let in that many people. Don't have fire-starting equipment, like industrial ovens, stoves and lamps inside. Don't operate electrical equipment at 220 or 125VAC. Don't allow any buildup of any combustible items.

The list of behavior-changing requirements to reduce common fires, like kitchen and electrical fires, is so lengthy and intensive that it wouldn't be reasonable to expect a food or beverage establishment to eliminate those hazards from their practice, would it?

So, what's left?

Reasonable capacity to extinguish fires and promote escape.

Sprinklers have demonstrated in tests, and in practice, time and again, that they reduce the spread of flames and poison gas enough to promote reasonable escape. So also do other fire safety equipment like alarms and lights and exit markings.

There are provisions for other savvy exception requests: like theaters with deluge systems or long walls of doors.

But the basic idea that the crowded establishment offers a means of escape in an emergency is a basic idea that supports commerce. Commerce is not hurt by safety.

What's too bad is that, once again, we've been dragging behind the rest of the world in as tacky and backwards a fashion as we could have. Now, after being as cheap and ignorant (actually ignoring) as we could for as long as we could, here comes the bill. Time to pay up.

Sprinklers make sense. Getting trampled, poisoned or burned because patrons were surprised by a fire does not.

January 19, 2011 at 6:55 p.m.
jpo3136 said...

Every day, in every restaurant and bar, they are, at least, either constantly operating a flame or fire in the kitchen, or serving combustible (can burst into flames) drinks to customers.

If they are serving whiskey, it's a combustible drink. The whole bar is one large bank of hard liquor liquids that can ignite with one moment of mistake.

What other workplace do you know of would expect staff and customers to stand within a yard of tens, maybe over a hundred, gallons of combustible liquids, in fragile --glass-- containers, with no reasonable way to stop a burning liquid spill?

Considering the proximity of flames and combustible liquids to the public, it's a wonder we have not had more problems.

What are they to do? Serve drinks that can burst into flames, but provide no reasonable measure for putting out those fires?

In our restaurants and bars, combustible materials are served, in quantity, to the general public, in a confined area with exits so narrow they will not allow crowds of people to escape immediately.

Add sprinklers.

January 19, 2011 at 7:22 p.m.
Yano said...

How many bar fires have been caused by spontaneously combusting whiskey? Don't confuse the issue.

We ban pyrotechnics. We ban flammable soundproofing. But, it was a combination of illegal pyrotechnics and illegal flammable soundproofing that caused the Station fire in Rhode Island.

Is the government telling us they can't inspect for unsafe insulation but they can inspect for sprinkler systems? Why? Is it necessary to drive some small businesses out of business by suddenly requiring a huge capital outlay in the middle of a recession? Is the risk significant (as opposed to spectacular but rare), and is this the law to fix it?

January 19, 2011 at 7:44 p.m.
midnitewatchman said...

I wonder which City Official has a brother/cousin etc that just happens to install sprinkler systems?

January 22, 2011 at 11:31 p.m.
firemarshalri said...

Statics show that most home fires occur in the home. Yet it is still not uncommon to find many homes still without the protection of at least one working smoke detector. For whatever the reasoning maybe some people still don't get the importance of keeping safe in their homes. Yet they can spend hundreds of dollars on non essential things such as a designer handbag or maybe a pair of Air Jordans. Mixed-up priorities I presume.

I am trying to understand why, in todays society, people are still resistant and quite frankly, reluctant to install a sprinkler system within their business. You talk about the cost factor involved with installation. How about the cost factor involved with not installing them? What is the cost factor for losing "one" life! Or the cost of rebuilding in today economy? Or the cost factor involved in losing economic revenue from all those employees, purveyors, and other intangible factor that could be out of a job because your business wasn't protected by a sprinkler system? How much more of an economic impact would that have upon the community? Or how about the possibly loss of life of a first responder who may risk their live to save your business? Or the economic stress that could occur if all the contaminated water run-off used to suppress the fire within your business, came in contact with your local water supply? Or if the dangerous particle of smoke and gases were released into the air that we breath? I could go on but I hope that maybe some of you see the light.

While Fire Marshals maybe the person who goes to your local schools and teaches your children how to stop, drop, roll and cover your face, or they maybe even the person who teaches you CPR, or community firefighting, or they may even be the local boys and girl scout pack leader, whatever or whoever they are they are, most of you all trust these people each and everyday to keep you safe! They maybe the ones you call mom, dad, uncle, auntie, grandma, grandpa, brother, sister, sir or madam remember they too are members of your community sworn to protect life and property! They go and do what most of you chose not to go, not only in a burning building but also behind a set of code books!

Be reasonable and educate others in your decision which involves your community. Look at all the factors, principles and stakeholders but remember to blame no one but yourself if this new sprinkler requirement isn't passed and someone loses a life! Fire Marshal are sworn to protect the community sometimes their decision may effect us directly but most of the time there is a method behind the reasoning on why things must be.

January 25, 2011 at 12:49 p.m.
Snoozdragon said...

If you are wondering what the actual cost of installing a fire sprinkler system is in home or business. Here is an Excell program set up specifically for this purpose. P.S. This is not spam..

February 23, 2011 at 5:52 p.m.
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