Massachusetts state building inspectors last night launched a crackdown on nightspots across the Commonwealth in the wake of Thursday night’s fatal nightclub fire in Rhode Island, searching for possible fire and building code violations that could jeopardize clubgoers’ safety.
As the death toll climbed almost hourly, Governor Mitt Romney ordered the Department of Public Safety to convene a task force to make the unannounced checks, which will focus on the hundreds of clubs in the state’s urban areas.
Romney also ordered Massachusetts Fire Marshal Stephen D. Coan to review the paperwork of the 47 people licensed for indoor pyrotechnics displays in the state. The Rhode Island blaze is believed to have been sparked by an indoor fireworks display during a rock concert.
Coan said his agency is not embarking on a witch hunt, but simply wants to ensure that the licenses are complete.
Public Safety Commissioner Joseph S. Lalli said the task force of about 20 inspectors will ensure that clubs have appropriate exits and fire alarms and are free of hazards. Violations will be written up on the spot and referred to municipal and fire officials.
The task force was scheduled to begin its work last night, and the inspections could take weeks, Lalli said. Violations could result in fines, or in some cases, the immediate shutdown of clubs, he said.
Meanwhile, authorities in Boston said yesterday that they cannot guarantee patrons’ safety in the city’s entertainment venues. Officials estimated that 80 percent of Boston’s 250 licensed nightclubs have sprinkler systems. The remainder are either too small to require them or were built before April 1979 and have not undergone substantial renovation, which would require installing sprinklers.
“Nothing can guarantee an event like this could not happen in Boston,” Boston Fire Commissioner Paul Christian said. “In Boston, we have a number of agencies out there day and night inspecting occupancies, but it ultimately comes down to owners and occupants. If you’re not comfortable, you shouldn’t stay.”
Christian advised club patrons to know how to find exits in case of an emergency. He said many of Boston’s older buildings probably have minimal fire alarm systems.
In addition to the statewide club crackdown, Boston Licensing Board chairman Daniel Pokaski said the board plans to begin issuing stronger penalties for violations such as blocked exits or overcrowding.
“I think it’s tough for us to ignore,” Pokaski said. “Maybe we’ll bring in the major nightclub owners and the police and fire departments and have a discussion about how we can make clubs even safer than what we have now.”
Some club owners said they are ready for surprise visits, and have made adjustments of their own. Russell Robbat, owner of the 4,200-capacity Palace complex in Saugus, a venue that encompasses 12 clubs and 38 bars, said he spent the day with inspectional safety officers. He said he has two sprinkler systems in the Palace, in case one malfunctions.
“I think you can expect fire marshals to go in everywhere in the coming days,” Robbat said. “There are going to be repercussions.”
The focus in Rhode Island and elsewhere yesterday was on the pyrotechnics display believed to have sparked the fatal blaze. Authorities said the owners of the destroyed club, The Station, did not have permits to hold such exhibits indoors, as required by Rhode Island law. Like Massachusetts, Rhode Island requires people seeking to display commercial fireworks or pyrotechnics to obtain both a certificate of competency from the state fire marshal and a permit from the local fire department.
The band that used the pyrotechnics to kick off its performance said it had permission from the club’s owners for the fireworks; the owners deny that and say they knew nothing about pyrotechnics being used.
The club deaths renewed calls for tougher regulations for sprinklers in buildings. In Rhode Island and Massachusetts, older structures built before building codes were modernized usually are not required to have sprinklers. According to the Quincy-based National Fire Protection Association, which writes guidelines followed by many states and communities regarding sprinklers, buildings with a capacity of less than 300 generally do not need to have sprinklers because they’re small enough for people to exit quickly.
The building housing The Station dates to 1950 and had a maximum capacity of 300.
“From what we can tell - and like everyone else, at this point we’re getting most of our information from television news reports - this appears to have been a very small building, so it might not be unusual if it was not required to be sprinklered because of its size,” Arthur E. Cote, executive vice president and chief engineer of the NFPA.
The association assists investigations of major fires and is helping in the Rhode Island inquiry, Cote said. Its chief investigator, Paul Duval, was en route to the scene yesterday after cutting short a trip to Hong Kong for a presentation on the World Trade Center disaster.
In Massachusetts - where the infamous Cocoanut Grove fire in 1942 killed 492 people and prompted new safety laws nationwide - nightclubs are considered “high hazards” under building codes. Under the state building code, structures larger than 5,000 square feet are required to have sprinklers, although older buildings are not required to unless they make substantial renovations.
Under the separate Massachusetts fire code, new construction or renovations larger than 7,500 feet must have sprinklers, said Berkley Fire Chief Kevin Partridge, president of the state fire chiefs’ association. But the guideline is optional for local communities, a loophole the association has tried to close through legislation. But Partridge said contractors and construction associations have blocked the move.
Jonathan Barnett, a professor at the Center for Firesafety Studies at Worcester Polytechnic Institute, said buildings using flammable interior finishes should have sprinklers as a backup safety measure.
“If people would only learn. We have never had multiple life loss in a fully sprinklered building, as long as the system is properly designed and the water is turned on,” Barnett said. “Sprinklers cost the same as wall-to-wall carpeting. It’s not an outrageous expense. I doubt if anyone would have died if they had sprinklers.”
Bonnie Bouley, owner of T.T. the Bear’s in Cambridge, said her 300-capacity club does not have sprinklers and isn’t required to.
“We have a lot of exits, though, and they’re all lit up in the case of fire,” Bouley said. “There’s a battery system for that. And we have five exits, which is one more than we need to have for a club our size.”
The Lyons Group, which owns the Paradise and Avalon clubs in Boston, did not return repeated calls on their safety measures.
Joseph Sater, co-owner of the Middle East nightclubs in Cambridge, said he spent $50,000 in the last 12 years to install sprinkler systems in the 575-capacity Middle East Downstairs, the 194-capacity Middle East Upstairs, and the smaller Cafe Zuzu, which is also part of the complex.
“I don’t regret it a bit. It’s been money well spent,” Sater said.
Anthony Flint and Brian C. Mooney of the Globe staff and Globe correspondent Donovan Slack contributed to this report.