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In Night Clubs, The Steps Taken To Prevent Tragic Fires


Boston, November 1942: 492 people died in a fire at the Cocoanut Grove. June 1974: 24 dead at Gulliver's in Port Chester, New York. In February 2003, 100 killed at The Station in West Warwick in Rhode Island. Tragedies that seared back into memory following the death of at least 230 on Sunday at the Kiss nightclub in Santa Maria, Brazil, preventable tragedies that could have been mitigated or stopped altogether by adherence to fire safety laws.

Joining us now from member station WEAA in Baltimore is Raymond O'Brocki, assistant chief of administration for the Baltimore Fire Department. Until just a couple of weeks ago, Chief O'Brocki served as Baltimore's fire marshal. Good to have you with us today.

RAYMOND O'BROCKI: Thank you, Neal. Good afternoon.

CONAN: And when you hear about terrible fires like that one in Brazil, I wonder what goes through your mind.

O'BROCKI: I think back to exactly the fires that you talked about: the Coconut Grove, Happy Land social club in the Bronx in the '90s, the Station, you mentioned, and even the Iroquois Theater fire back in Chicago in 1903. They're such recurring themes over and over and over again with these fires; lack of egress, overcrowding, combustible wall coverings, a lack of a notification, a crowd that doesn't know where the exits are, exits that are locked and blocked.

This is a recurring theme. And that you - people just don't expect that it's going to happen to them, so their reaction time is very much slowed down. These are the thoughts that come immediately to me that codes aren't the problem. Code enforcement is the problem.

CONAN: And I think of - obviously, every town has places that are well-established and that obey all the rules and have all the sprinklers and all the exits. But new music and new entrepreneurs always are setting up in, you know, warehouse districts, in places that never had clubs before.

O'BROCKI: Oh, that is certainly the sort of the profile of the most of the code offenders. It's the economic modals. They're not doing this because they're mean. They're doing it because they're trying to make a buck and they're being a little irresponsible. Overcrowding is probably the biggest factor, the one we find most often.

One big problem in Baltimore city has been these after-hour clubs that don't have liquor license that fly under the radar, the bottle clubs, they call them, where people come in - and usually when we find underage - I mean, we find overcrowding, that's usually coupled with underage drinking. That's why we've linked arms with the liquor board in Baltimore city because when somebody has an economic mode of not to follow the fire code, they usually don't follow the liquor laws as well.

CONAN: We're talking with Raymond O'Brocki in Baltimore, the former fire marshal there. You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

And that economic incentive it is, you say, you know, really hard to say, I'm sorry, you, 50 people outside who are waving dollars in my face and want to come in, you can't come in.

O'BROCKI: Yes. That's why we do spot checks. Lot of cities have inspectors that are 9 to 5 business hours guys, and we used to be that way. And we just ran complaints - you know, the spot checks were basically complaint-driven. When we started to do spot checks and we reworked inspector schedules so they would be on the weekends and at night.

And we also - we bolster up our forces on days we know the clubs are historically crowded. The day before Thanksgiving is one of those sort of unwritten or unknown-about days where clubs are packed, that most people wouldn't think. Obviously, New Year's Eve, St. Patrick's Day, Super Bowl Sunday. So these are days we know they're going to be packed.

We also try to get out in the community, work with the businesses as business partners. And many times, we'll have club owners, responsible club owners tell us about irresponsible club owners. And another factor with The Station and with the fire in Santa Maria was the introduction of pyrotechnics into an enclosed space. Probably wasn't permitted, it wasn't authorized. And then you couple that with the combustible decorations and furnitures. This is what happened to Cocoanut Grove in 1942, not the pyrotechnic part but the flammable interior wall coverings. In that one, it was supposed that a busboy, trying to change a light bulb, held a - it was dimly-lit club as well. And that's another factor with many of these - held a lighter...

CONAN: It was speakeasy. Yeah.

O'BROCKI: Yeah. And held a lighter up to change a light bulb and then caught this sort of - the Cocoanut Grove, as you can imagine, had an island theme to it - and caught palm trees and this really dry and flammable wall covering on fire. That's why we have standards about what you can and can't put in a club nowadays.

And nowadays, with the bottle clubs and the night clubs, there is this move to put sofas in the clubs, which I haven't seen but - in the last couple years. And we make them show a fire rating for that so if, well, many of them don't have it but there are chemicals that you can treat of this with. And then we make them display the chemicals and it shows a log of when they apply it and when they reapply it.

CONAN: You talked about the Cocoanut Grove and overcrowding. The number killed in that fire exceeded the number allowed into the club and hundreds of others were injured. But this recur, as you say, and we learned the lessons in Rhode Island before The Station fire. The inspector failed to notice the foam that was being used for insulation was flammable and, well, they now have one of toughest sets of regulations in the country.

O'BROCKI: Yeah. We had - we've had problems. You know, there is always this tension as the fire marshal between allowing, you know, people to operate their business the way they want to. And also not just that, but free expression. I had a go-around with a young lady who wanted fire dancing in this club. And I just - we simply do not allow pyrotechnics and/or this fire dancing-type of deals. And she was pretty adamant about her First Amendment right to free expression, and I fully support that. But there is a time, manner and place for things that we can put on that.

CONAN: And how - what kind of pushback do you get when you say I'm sorry? You need to put sprinkler system. You need to have three more exits. This costs a lot of money.

O'BROCKI: Well, usually the pushback is in the planning stages, and that's where it has to start, in plans review. We have a pretty solid relationship with our housing and building departments, liquor licensing. So before these clubs can even open, they have to go though this process, and that's where we get the, you know, the economic argument.

And I always say that, you know, you wouldn't open a restaurant unless you considered the price of a stove to put in that restaurant. Then, you know, if you're going to open in my club - and ever year the threshold for sprinkler systems gets more restrictive. It was 250, occupancy of 250. Now, it's 100. I foresee a time in the future when you open any public assembly - which is public assembly is any place that holds more than 50 people for entertainment purposes - that you're going to have sprinkler it.

So business planners, business - prospective business owners need to factor in sprinkler systems into the price of doing business. And it is beneficial in the long run. And most responsible business people understand that that is for the end game, the long run, it is in their best interests. It's sort of the short-term guys, the new folks that come in to this world...

CONAN: Excuse me, Chief. I just want - we just have a few seconds left and I want to give Suzanne just a moment to get on the air. Suzanne is with us from Carson City.

SUZANNE: Hello. My name is Suzanne. I'm from Carson City, Nevada. I am the mother of the one the victims of The Station Fire in Rhode Island 10 years ago. And I tried here in Nevada to get one of my legislators, a local representative, to change the fire code here because we had had a fire at a residence hotel, which killed six or eight people. And nothing could be done because nobody wants to spend the money.

CONAN: Well, it is sad that maybe another tragedy will have to occur before people tighten the regulations there in Nevada. Thank you very much, Suzanne, for the call. And we're sorry that - well, again, this all may have come back to you with that news of that fire in Brazil.

SUZANNE: Thank you very much.

CONAN: Appreciate it. And, Chief O'Brocki, thank you very much for your time.

O'BROCKI: Thank you, Neal.

CONAN: That is Raymond O'Brocki, who served as assistant fire chief of administration for the Baltimore Fire Department and fire marshal till earlier this month, with us from WEAA in Baltimore. This is the TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News. I'm Neal Conan in Washington. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.