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South Side crackdown partially revives fire safety inspections in Pittsburgh

| Wednesday, Feb. 20, 2013, 12:05 a.m.

Pittsburgh bars and nightclubs largely escape random inspections for overcrowding and other fire safety violations a decade after fires in Chicago and Rhode Island nightclubs killed more than 100 people.

Special inspections during Mayor Luke Ravenstahl's crackdown on rowdy bar patrons in the South Side turned up 13 violations during the past five weeks for burned out exit signs, blocked exits and faulty exit hardware.

Beyond the South Side, officials stopped most fire safety inspections of the city's 769 establishments with liquor licenses in 2004 because of budget cuts, Ravenstahl spokeswoman Joanna Doven said on Tuesday. Inspectors still visit bars when they receive complaints.

“It's not like we're not doing anything,” said Doven, who noted the city inspects buildings before businesses open. She said Ravenstahl and Public Safety Director Michael Huss would not comment.

The fire bureau is training 160 of its officers as certified fire inspectors and buying laptops to log inspections and violations through an $800,000 federal grant.

“We will be doing (inspections). We're not there yet, but we're working on it,” said fire Chief Darryl Jones, who hopes to begin inspections this summer. “We should be doing whatever we can to prevent fire.”

He said most commercial buildings must have sprinkler systems, depending on their square footage.

“On a regular basis, there should be a whole list of comprehensive, ongoing plans of action to regularly spot-check occupancy and fire safety in nightlife venues across the city,” said City Councilman Bruce Kraus, who represents the bar-lined South Side.

“I don't want Pittsburgh celebrating a 10th anniversary of a tragic nightclub fire.”

On Feb. 20, 2003, pyrotechnics for rock band Great White ignited The Station nightclub in West Warwick, R.I., killing 100 people overcome by flames and heavy smoke. Three days earlier, pepper spray used to disperse a fight at a crowded Chicago nightclub sparked a dash to the main exit that resulted in 21 people being crushed to death. Investigators said some exits were blocked or not visible.

Communities including Pittsburgh responded by bolstering ordinances intended to prevent similar tragedies and promised to step up code enforcement efforts.

City Council in March 2003 unanimously approved allowing inspectors to empty bars and clubs believed to be over capacity and allow only the legally permitted number of patrons to return. Council promised night-time spot inspections of businesses that could accommodate 50 or more people.

Bill Peduto, a mayoral candidate and the only council member from 2003 still serving, said he is unaware of any spot safety inspections in at least the past seven years.

“Even though it is the law, there doesn't appear to be any program in place by this administration,” he said.

California-based Responsible Hospitality Institute, a consulting firm city officials paid $200,000 to improve public safety on the South Side, released a report in December that concluded bar and nightclub patrons in Pittsburgh face increased risk of stampede or fire deaths because of infrequent inspections.

The city lacks either the money or commitment to inspect businesses, the report said.

Events and businesses using fireworks or pyrotechnic displays in Pittsburgh must have a city permit, Jones said. The city issued 33 permits last year for such venues as Consol Energy Center, Downtown, and Stage AE and PNC Park on the North Shore. The city requires a fire bureau inspection in advance and typically has a fire marshal attend the show, Jones said.

Firefighters conducted 242 bar inspections during this year's South Side blitz. Twelve of the 13 bars that firefighters warned about violations fixed the issues within a week. City officials issued one citation for a faulty exit sign at The Rowdy Buck on East Carson Street. No one answered the phone at the bar.

Fire code violations can bring fines up to $1,000 per day, Jones said. Businesses can be shut down immediately for serious violations, he said.

But fire and building code ordinances do not address crowd management, said Paul Wertheimer, founder of Los Angeles-based Crowd Management Strategies.

“People who go to public venues are exposed to more safety risks than they should be — even today,” said Wertheimer, who researched the Chicago and Rhode Island cases. “What's causing disasters is the failure to monitor crowds properly.”

Static, a Strip District club that has operated in the former Rosebud space for nearly two years, regularly welcomes 1,000 customers on weekend nights, managing partner Chris Firman said. A security crew meets monthly to review emergency plans and procedures.

“If you don't have a proper strategy in place, you can take a bad situation and make it 10 times worse,” Firman said.

Fundamental risks come with the nightclub experience, and each venue presents its own challenges, said Harold Hansen, director of life safety and security for the Texas-based International Association of Venue Managers, which offers crowd management training.

“It seems fair to say that there are safe and responsible nightclubs that have taken the lessons of The Station and other tragedies to heart — and there likely are some that have not,” Hansen said.

Bob Bauder and Jason Cato are staff writers for Trib Total Media. They can be reached at bbauder@tribweb.com and jcato@tribweb.com.

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