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In wake of tragedy in R.I., a push for safety

Rhode Island fire safety regulations in effect at the time of The Station nightclub fire should have been enough to prevent the ghastly inferno that killed 100 and left hundreds more injured.

Had the rules been enforced, the pyrotechnics that ignited the blaze would never have been set off. The flammable soundproofing covering some of the walls and part of the ceiling would never have been installed. And the club would not have been jammed beyond capacity.

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“Unquestionably,” the fire would not have occurred if the regulations had been followed, said John Barylick, a civil attorney for victims and their families and the author of “Killer Show,” a book recounting the fire and its aftermath.

But in the wake of the catastrophe, lawmakers in Rhode Island and Massachusetts felt something had to be done.

Overwhelmed by the plight of victims, they responded by overhauling and toughening fire regulations, requiring hundreds of previously exempt nightclub owners to install sprinklers, train staff in crowd management, and adopt numerous other safeguards. Fire safety rules in the two states are now among the nation’s most stringent.

“It was a very emotional time,” said Massachusetts Fire Marshal Stephen D. Coan, recalling that more than 30 of the dead were from Massachusetts. “I felt very committed to making sure we did all that we could.”

A series of violations of safety regulations created the conditions for the deadly inferno that killed 100 people at The Station nightclub in Rhode Island in 2003.

DAVID L RYAN/GLOBE STAFF/FILE

A series of violations of safety regulations created the conditions for the deadly inferno that killed 100 people at The Station nightclub in Rhode Island in 2003.

In short order, officials in Massachusetts and Rhode Island convened panels of experts and affected parties to review existing regulations and recommend new ones. In a year’s time, each state had enacted the new rules.

“I know definitely that we’re safer now than we were then,” said Rhode Island Fire Marshal John E. Chartier.

Measuring precisely how safe nightclub patrons in Massachusetts and Rhode Island have become is difficult because tragedies like The Station are rare, and neither state has reported a fatal nightclub blaze since the 2003 disaster. But fire prevention specialists say sprinklers are perhaps the most effective way to prevent fatal fires.

“Fires in buildings with functioning automatic sprinkler systems generally do not result in multiple fatality fires,” said Robert Solomon of the National Fire Protection Association.

Coan said he estimates more than 770 existing bars and nightclubs in Massachusetts have been retrofitted with sprinkler systems since 2004, when the legislature and Governor Mitt Romney approved legislation requiring existing bars and nightclubs with a capacity of 100 or more to install them. New facilities were already required to install sprinklers.

Coan’s estimate is based on a 2007 voluntary survey of city and town fire chiefs — Boston did not respond to the survey, his office said. It does not account for bars and nightclubs that evaded the order through measures such as reducing capacity to less than 100 or simply closing.

In Boston, a 2008 Boston Globe review of Fire Department records found that only 68 bars and nightclubs had installed sprinklers, even though the department had initially concluded that 283 needed them. But court filings suggest that the city made a vigorous effort to enforce the regulations.

Today, however, the City of Boston does not even track how many bars and nightclubs have installed sprink­lers.

Still, Coan said he believes the state has achieved “one hundred percent compliance” with the 2004 sprinkler law, in part because compliance is a prerequisite for the annual renewal of each bar and nightclub’s liquor license.

“Their livelihoods are based on their liquor licenses,” Coan said.

Patrick Lyons, the restaurateur and onetime nightclub impresario who sat on the task force that made recommendations to the legislature, said the 2004 law “makes Massachusetts one of the safest places anywhere.”

Initially, both Massachusetts and Rhode Island met significant resistance from business owners who said the price of installing sprinkler systems — which can cost tens of thousands of dollars — could put them out of business.

In Rhode Island, where the new fire safety law required installation of sprinklers in existing nightclubs and other businesses with a capacity of 150 or more — 50 more than recommended by the National Fire Protection Association — Steve Lombardi, a co-owner of Johnston’s landmark 1025 Club, was especially vocal.

“We said sprinklers were not the answer,” he recalled during a recent interview. “We were trying to tell them that exits were the answer — more ­exits, exits closer together, larger exits.”

After several years of fighting the new sprinkler requirement, Lombardi and his brother Dave sold the 1025 to a church — houses of worship are exempt from the sprinkler requirement — and opened Lombardi’s Hillside Country Club in Rehoboth, Mass.

In Massachusetts, the pushback from bar and club owners was strong enough to persuade the legislature to double the recommended minimum seating capacity that would trigger sprinkler requirements, from 50 to 100.

Nevertheless, 66 bars and clubs filed and pursued appeals with the state Automatic Sprinkler Appeals Board, and a few even filed suit.

The Barking Crab, the popular eating and drinking establishment at the edge of what is now the city’s bustling Seaport District, argued in Suffolk Superior Court that it should be excused from installing sprinklers because it was a restaurant, not a bar, and because its indoor occupancy of 58 people fell below the law’s 100-occupancy trigger.

But the court, in a 2009 decision, sided with the state’s determination that the Barking Crab is principally a bar with outdoor seating that allowed more than 100 patrons during warm-weather months. In response, the Barking Crab has installed a “state of the art” sprinkler system, according to spokesman Chris Haynes.

Other bar and club owners voluntarily installed sprinklers even when they could have avoided the expense. For John Stenson, the owner of the venerable Eire Pub in Dorchester, avoiding the sprinkler requirement would have been a simple matter of lowering his official capacity from 101 to 99.

Instead, in 2004, shortly after the fire prevention law went into effect, he was one of the first to install sprinklers — in his case, a deluxe system with attractive copper piping — in part because “it was the right thing to do,” and in part because he regarded the $40,000 expense as an investment that would increase the value of the property while lowering insurance premiums.

“I could see the safety in it, and I could see the value of the property escalating,” he said.

Solomon, of the National Fire Protection Association, which recommends fire safety standards to local governments, said the 2004 regulations approved in Massachusetts and Rhode Island in the wake of the Station fire are “among the most stringent in the country.”

Still, few fire officials or fire safety experts are willing to say that another fire like the one at The Station couldn’t happen here again.

Within four years of that fire, similar fatal nightclub blazes sparked by fireworks were ignited in Argentina, Thailand, and Russia. And earlier this month, a nightclub fire in Brazil, set off by fireworks that ignited flammable foam insulation, killed more than 230 people under circumstances frighteningly similar to those that caused the Station fire.

“We humans are pretty slow learners,” Barylick said.

Michael Rezendes can be reached at rezendes@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @RezGlobe.

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