Death traps - Most nightclubs, bars ignore fire safety regulations

Death traps - Most nightclubs, bars ignore fire safety regulations

Security measures create fire traps in some clubs

BY JANICE BUDD Associate Editor — Sunday This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.

Sunday, March 27, 2011

PATRONS at some of the Corporate Area's most popular exotic clubs and bars could be sipping their drinks and enjoying the "sights" oblivious to the fact that they are sitting in fire traps.

The Jamaica Fire Brigade says overcrowded dance floors and padlocked exits at clubs and bars are increasingly becoming cause for alarm.




The fire experts feel carelessness and plain old greed could one day spark a massive club fire and cause tragic loss of life similar to the 2009 Russian nightclub tragedy in which 109 patrons died.

In that case, fireworks launched inside the building hit the plastic ceiling, setting everything ablaze. The victims died from burns, smoke inhalation and being crushed in the ensuing stampede.

According to local fire experts, the same could happen here in Jamaica.

The Fire Brigade's mandate is to ensure that all public buildings, including hotels, bars and nightclubs are compliant with fire safety regulations. However, Fire Chief Laurie Williams, pointing to data from the brigade's latest survey of adherence to safety standards in public buildings, said compliance among nightclubs and places of entertainment is far too low.

"Looking at 2010, we are way below what we would term optimum compliance in terms of fire prevention, in terms of recommendation for bars, clubs, mainly nightclubs, etc," he said. "We find we have a compliance rate of just about 26 per cent. Last year we did 602 inspections, of that we were only able to certify 156 of the premises.

"This year seems to have not brought much improvement on these rates. So far we have inspected 118 of that type of facility and we have only certified 26, or about 31 per cent of what we have looked at so far between January and February."

Williams blamed a multiplicity of factors for proprietors slacking off.

"What we find is that they (the clubs) would have been certified for a particular year and when we go back the following year to re-certify, because of complacency or lack of adherence to the recommendations, we find that exits that were originally there have now become blocked, because persons are trying to store more than the place can accommodate," said the fire chief.

"There are some very big establishments where, for security reasons, they are padlocking some of the doors and their panic bars (emergency locks on doors) don't work," he noted.

"We find that (exit) signs that originally were working are no longer working; we find that the alarms at the exits have not been serviced, so we don't know if they would work in an emergency, and when we check sometimes we have a difficulty getting them to work," Williams explained.

However, by far the most commonplace infraction occurs at nights which is when the fire brigade's inspectors prefer to do their spot checks, Williams said.

"Most of the places (of amusement) have a (certain) square footage which should only handle a certain number of patrons (but) are overcrowded, way, way overcrowded in terms of the number of persons who should be in that particular space," said the fire chief.

The potential for a stampede in the event a fire breaks out is high when the twin hazards of limited exits and overcrowding are combined.

Commissioner Williams declined the Sunday Observer's entreaties for him to name those clubs found in breach. However, he said the infractions were not limited to the Corporate Area and included some clubs in the popular resort areas as well.

He added that the dangers of overcrowding and inadequate or blocked exits in some clubs and bars are compounded by the fact that employees at these establishments are usually untrained in assisting in the evacuation of patrons if there is a fire.

Under the Fire Brigade Act (1988) the owners and operators of the establishments must have fire certificates in order to get a licence to operate.

The fire brigade personnel conduct regular inspections to keep club operators in train and to ensure these buildings are up to par. Those that aren't could have their certification revoked and face fines.

At the end of inspections, weaknesses with respect to fire safety are pointed out to the proprietor and they are given a specified period of time to become compliant, after which they are re-inspected. If they are found compliant, on payment of upkeep — which the fire brigade says is needed to take care of consumables or administrative costs — they will be issued with a one-year certificate of compliance.

Williams feels that operators of nightclubs, bars and other places of amusement tend to ensure that they renew their liquor licence annually, because they need that to operate. In contrast, they don't go for their fire certification annually unless forced by the brigade's inspectors, or unless there is a public incident that pushes everybody towards compliance.

"You see, what happens is that they are compliant initially to get a licence — and I don't have any empirical evidence to prove it — but you find that it's usually when the parish council or some other entity makes a particular move, before persons try to re-certify," he said.

However, the legislation has failed to keep up with the times since those found in breach of the fire safety regulations and who fail to rectify their situation within the grace period specified by the fire brigade face having to pay a paltry $5,000 fine, or spend up to six months in prison.

According to Williams, when faced with the possibility of appearing before a magistrate, the errant proprietors can easily pay the fine and move towards conforming to the regulations.

But tight pockets and fewer patrons have made some club operators willing to risk not only their personal freedom, but their patrons' lives.

"When we compare fire safety and security, fire safety loses out," he said.

"I mentioned panic bars; what the panic bar is supposed to do is that when you lean against it, such as when there is a rush of people as happens in an emergency, the lever is supposed to drop, allowing people to exit the building quickly. But club owners have found people who don't pay slipping into the establishment this way... you have some management that tend to padlock that," said Williams.

"What we have advocated is for them to connect the panic bar to an auto-alarm so that if someone opens the door, it would trigger an alarm."

However, in noting that there has been no major nightclub fire tragedy during his tenure with the fire brigade, Commissioner Williams said there are a few signs that, on the recommendation of the Jamaica Fire Brigade, proprietors of more exclusive clubs are moving toward using construction materials and decor that are resistant to fire.

"Our experience has been that most of the premises, except for those that are on upper floors and (those that) tend to have easy egress from the premises in case of fire, tend to adhere to our recommendations of not using flammable materials in the decor," said the fire chief.

He was also pleased to report that smoking has been banned in some enclosed places of entertainment, which also helps reduce risk.

"More and more, we find more proprietors moving toward a 'No-Smoking' policy because of the air-conditioning. So you find that there is less of a risk for fire caused by smoking, but there is still the risk of electrical fires from equipment that is being used on the premises," said Williams.

He made the comparison between Jamaican clubs and those in other countries where special effects such as sparklers and indoor flames, as well as multi-media effects can spark fires.

However, Williams readily admitted that the fire brigade's public education campaign needs to be beefed up.

"We need to be more aggressive in terms of the public education of these individuals," he conceded.

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