published Saturday, August 31st, 2013

Chattanooga councilman eyes limiting which clubs or bars must have sprinklers

Steve Splawn with W&W Sprinkler Inc. takes part in a fire inspection at the new Chattanooga History Museum in downtown Chattanooga.
Steve Splawn with W&W Sprinkler Inc. takes part in a fire inspection at the new Chattanooga History Museum in downtown Chattanooga.
Photo by Dan Henry.

A Chattanooga councilman wants to give city businesses a break by severely limiting which clubs or bars must have sprinklers.

Under current law, owners of sports bars, restaurants with live entertainment, dance halls, discotheques, nightclubs and "assembly occupancies with festival seating" are required to install sprinkler systems by Dec. 31.

Councilman Chris Anderson plans to introduce legislation Tuesday that, if approved, essentially would mean the city's 2011 sprinkler ordinance would not apply to most of these venues.

His solution is a resolution excluding all existing nightclub owners from installing sprinklers in the city limits unless the business is using indoor pyrotechnics. New businesses would still have to install sprinklers.

"Now is the time to do something," Anderson said. "This can't wait because we're going to have small-businesses people going out of business in a few months."

When the City Council passed the ordinance by a 5-4 vote in 2011, business owners were given three years to install sprinkler systems, which cost $50,000 to $70,000.

Several business owners said they would support Anderson's proposal. The expense of retrofitting older buildings is burdensome, they argue.

"I'm hoping today's council will understand the undo hardship many locally owned mom-and-pop businesses face," said Michael Alfano, owner of the Comedy Catch.

When Alfano tried to comply with the sprinkler ordinance, he was given a $70,000 estimate to install the equipment in his stand-up comedy club and restaurant. Alfano, who openly spoke out against the ordinance three years ago, is one of several business owners Anderson has invited to speak before the council Tuesday.

Councilwoman Carol Berz, who supported the ordinance, said officials voted for the change to comply with the 2006 version of the National Fire Protection Association's 101 Life Safety Code and because former Fire Marshal James Whitmire recommended it for safety precautions.

"They've had plenty of time to get into compliance," Berz said. "I'm not sure what the problem is."

The National Fire Protection Association added sprinkler requirements to the 2006 codes after a Rhode Island nightclub fire killed 100 trapped inside the building. According to their statistics, the Rhode Island burning 10 years ago is the last nightclub fire that killed a person.

Anderson said the tragedy occurred not because the club didn't have sprinkler system but because the exits were chained closed and because the club was illegally using pyrotechnics inside the building.

Other owners said the ordinance has hindered people from occupying the second or third floors of buildings downtown.

Part of the city ordinance requires anyone who uses mixed-use space, such as apartments above a restaurant, a sprinkler system must be installed.

For Matt Lewis, co-owner of the local Irish restaurant and bar Honest Pint and multiple other popular night spots and a coffee shop, the ordinance hit close to home.

After having $60,000 worth of sprinklers installed at Honest Pint, the local businessman made plans to move his family into an apartment above his coffee shop, Mean Mug, on Main Street. At first he was told he wouldn't have to install a sprinkler, but during an inspection days before he was to move in, Lewis was asked where the sprinkler were.

"This is me personally moving in my personal residence. It's not like its public safety," Lewis said.

After several meetings, Lewis said he was able to negotiate with the city to avoid the costly update, but instead shelled out $12,000 for an expensive fire alarm system.

Fire Marshal William Matlock said Chattanooga is in line with national standards, but he declined to comment on whether he would support a change in the ordinance until after he sees what Anderson proposes.

Contact staff writer Joy Lukachick at jlukachick@timesfreepress.com or 423-757-6659.

about Joy Lukachick Smith...

Joy Lukachick is the city government reporter for the Chattanooga Times Free Press Since 2009, she's covered breaking news, high-profile trials, stories of lost lives and of regained hope and done investigative work. Raised near the Bayou, Joy’s hometown is along the outskirts of Baton Rouge, La. She has a bachelor’s degree in mass communication from Louisiana State University. While at LSU, Joy was a staff writer for the Daily Reveille. When Joy isn't chasing ...

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