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Our Opinion: Nightclub sprinkler rules will save lives

Nightclubs — with their loud music, occasional pyrotechnics, late-night operations and throngs of potentially inebriated patrons — are particularly vulnerable to catastrophic fires.

The Portland City Council will take an important step next week toward making this city’s hotspots less vulnerable when it holds a Sept. 4 public hearing on an ordinance requiring installation of sprinkler systems in larger nightclubs.

Considering that protecting the public’s safety really is the most basic responsibility for a local government, city commissioners should support the ordinance offered by Commissioner Dan Saltzman. The council also should commit to work with nightclub owners and operators to make sure they can comply with the new rules in a timely fashion.

The requirement for sprinkler systems ought not be viewed as an onerous expense for nightclub owners, but as an investment to make their businesses safer and therefore more appealing to customers. We recognize it’s not easy for every business to come up with the $20,000 to $40,000 required for installation of a sprinkler system. As city officials point out, however, in nightclubs that attract 100 or more patrons several nights a week, a $1 surcharge per admission could easily pay for a sprinkler system within months.

Plus, patrons would have peace of mind in knowing they won’t get trapped in a horrific inferno like The Station nightclub fire in Rhode Island, which killed 100 people in 2003, or the Santa Maria fire in Brazil, which killed 241 people this year.

Portland has nightclubs in Old Town and elsewhere that, due to their age and lack of sprinklers, are particularly susceptible to a tragic fire. These concerns were highlighted in a Portland Tribune investigation earlier this summer, which in turn prompted Saltzman to act.

Saltzman, who became the city’s fire commissioner this year, has worked with Fire Chief Erin Janssens and Fire Marshal Nate Takara to model an ordinance after a similar law in Washington state. The ordinance would require sprinklers in nightclubs with capacities greater than 100.

The proposed law allows nightclub owners and their landlords time to comply. For venues that hold more than 200 people, the sprinklers would have to be installed by Dec. 31, 2014. For nightclubs with occupancies between 100 and 200, the deadline would be six to 12 months later.

The Fire Bureau has done substantial research on the potential danger of nightclub fires, quantifying 2,500 needless deaths in other states and countries over a period of decades. Janssens and Takara also point to convincing evidence that sprinkler systems can virtually eliminate the risk in individual nightclubs.

No one in Portland wants to contemplate the prospect of a tragic fire on the scale of what occurred in Brazil earlier this year. The best way to reduce the chances of that happening is to move forward with the ordinance proposed by Saltzman.