Nightclub owners could object to high cost of proposed rules

In April, a bartender at upscale Pearl District restaurant Bluehour dropped a liquor bottle that was ignited by a candle and spread to a dispensing machine. Within minutes, the restaurant’s automated sprinkler system extinguished the fire, which could have spread to the 50 or 60 customers nearby.

“We’re very fortunate that they did have a sprinkler, and it basically was a nonincident because of it,” says Portland Fire Chief Erin Janssens. “It could have been a tragic event.”

But as many as 25 Portland nightclubs don’t have sprinkler systems, and are vulnerable to the types of fires that kill scores, sometimes hundreds of people in tragic events. That could be about to change.

On Sept. 4, Portland City Commissioner Dan Saltzman will propose a City Council resolution to require that all the city’s large nightclubs install automated sprinkler systems. The systems can be expensive, ranging from about $20,000 to more than $40,000 to install.

The city’s largest nightclubs, with more than 200 people allowed inside at one time, will be required to have sprinklers installed by Dec. 31, 2014. Clubs with 100 to 200 occupants will get either an extra year or 18 months to comply, under the proposed ordinance released Monday to the Tribune.

Saltzman, who became the city’s Fire Bureau commissioner this year, says he has consulted his fellow council members and feels they will support the measure. Not all of the city’s nightclub owners are on board, however, and could object to the expense.

Saltzman says that after reading a series of Tribune stories about dangerous Portland Old Town nightclubs, and having the fire chief and fire marshal conduct their own investigations, he feels certain the new requirement is necessary.

“We could do this now and act in a preventive manner or we could be doing this the day after a tragedy,” Saltzman says. “I’d rather err on the side of the former approach.”

Washington regulations

The measure will affect about 20 local nightclubs that do not have sprinklers, according to Portland Fire Marshal Nate Takara. During drafting of the resolution, thought was given to including the city’s dance halls and indoor festival sites, which would have raised the number of affected businesses to about 60. Janssens says the final resolution mirrors a Washington state regulation.

When Washington moved to a similar requirement in 2005, a number of nightclub owners objected, and a few closed their doors rather than pay for the sprinkler systems. Saltzman says he doesn’t think Portland club owners will find it too difficult to find financing for their sprinkler systems.

“We’re not going to tell them how to pay for it, but a simple increase in cover (charges) could easily cover the cost, and we’re giving them time to do it,” Saltzman says.

According to a fact sheet produced by Portland Fire & Rescue, nationwide there is no record of a fire killing more than two people in a building protected by a fire sprinkler system. Nightclub owners in Portland, in addition to installing the sprinkler systems, will be required to pay for annual inspections that will cost about $500, and to pay for Water Bureau standby fees to cover the potential need for increased water flow to the sprinklers. The water fee is expected to be about $1,200 a year.

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