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The debate over the fire safety codes that Rhode Island adopted after the fire at The Station nightclub continued last week at the second hearing of the 2007-08 House Oversight Commission to Study the Ramifications of the Fire Safety Code.
Though the panel’s first hearing had focused on businesses and the impact of the fire code on them, this time legislators wanted to hear from the fire marshals enforcing the codes.
George Calise, deputy fire marshal for Providence, said some fine-tuning of the codes is needed, but he warned against making “radical changes,” which he said “would only serve to confuse the citizenry, confuse the design professionals and confuse the fire code enforcement authorities and developers.
“The last thing we need in this process is more confusion and uncertainty,” he added.
But business groups and municipal officials, who came out in force again, called for bigger changes.
Jerry Meyer, president of the East Greenwich Chamber of Commerce and spokesman for the Rhode Island Chamber of Commerce Coalition, which represents 13 Chambers, testified on behalf of East Greenwich businesses and nonprofits suffering from costs associated with compliance.
The Greenwich Odeum, the city’s only downtown theater, had its occupancy rating reduced by 25 percent because it lacked sprinklers. It could no longer make enough money to stay open, Meyer said, and it could not afford the cost of sprinklers.
“The Odeum is effectively closed, out of business because of this code,” he said. “The income it brought to our restaurants and surrounding businesses is lost.”
“Let the tweaking begin … or any adjustments that need to be made to this code as soon as possible,” he added.
Meyer also asked, on behalf of the Chamber Coalition, that the commission recognize that school buildings should not be subject to the same rules as nightclubs. East Greenwich has had to redirect more than $1 million to fire alarm upgrades in schools, some for a school that will be demolished in the next few years, he said.
Cumberland Mayor Daniel McKee testified that the cost of fire code work for schools in his town is about $8 million, although much of that is not due to upgrades, since the town is also building a new high school.
After listening to the Chambers’ and town officials’ testimony, Thomas Coffey, executive director of the R.I. Fire Safety Code Board of Appeal and Review, said: “It appears that the major issues we have here are the costs of the sprinkler coverage and the fire alarm coverage. I don’t think there’s any business that’s come before us and said, ‘We have a problem putting up exit signs.’ ”
He suggested that the commission and state fire authorities work together to focus on those two issues, which “seem to be a thread of all the arguments,” he said.
Coffey used the Odeum as an example. Having the option of an alternative sprinkler system or a limited-coverage sprinkler system that would have lowered the cost could have helped, he said.
Rep. Joseph A. Trillo, R-Warwick, co-chair of the commission, said it’s time to start working out the details of what should be amended.
“I don’t know when or where that will take place. It will be a more nuts-and-bolts conversation,” he said.
What Trillo does know, he said, is that he doesn’t like the fact that local fire authorities in cities and towns have the power to give cease-and-desist orders to stop businesses from operating without getting prior approval from a higher authority such as the state fire marshal’s office or board of appeals.
“That’s a power I am concerned about,” he said. “I’m not so sure we shouldn’t take that power back.”