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City requires fire permits but doesn't regularly check clubs

| Saturday, Feb. 22, 2003

Pittsburgh fire officials don't conduct regular safety checks of the city's nightspots, instead relying on complaints from the public to tip them to potential trouble.

The city does, however, have strict rules on the use of fireworks and other pyrotechnics like those that sparked the blaze in Rhode Island, city Fire Bureau Chief Peter Micheli said Friday. At least 95 people died and 180 were injured after a nightclub in West Warwick, R.I., erupted in a raging fire Thursday during a rock band's pyrotechnic display.

Robin Fernandez, owner-operator of both Metropol and Rosebud, two Strip District nightspots, assigns a production manager to watch bands set up their equipment.

"You have got to be careful with some of these bands," Fernandez said. "Just because someone is a big national act doesn't mean they are that smart."

City of Pittsburgh fire officials raided eight bars in the last two years after hearing of overcrowding or other safety violations, such as blocked fire exits, Micheli said. Overcrowding was found in three cases in the Strip District and Oakland. One bar was fined $1,000 in 2001; two others were issued warnings.

"Anybody who calls us, we go to check it out," Micheli said.

People going to Strip District clubs last night said they were surprised that the city doesn't conduct regular safety checks.

"I didn't know that. It doesn't seem right," said Jessica Wofford, 36, of Monroeville, who was heading to Metropol for a show.

Wofford and her friend Matt Hickey both said that despite the two nightclub disasters this week, they will still go out to their nightspots.

"I heard about the Rhode Island fire today, but it just seems like one of those freak accidents," said Hickey, 27, of Oakland. "I'm really not worried. The places I do go to seem pretty safe."

One South Side woman who was going to meet friends for dinner said she was warned about going out.

"My mother told me not to go out," said Gena Carter, 23, who said she would hit the clubs later. "But she always worries. This is my weekend, and something that happened hundreds of miles away isn't going to stop me from going out."

In Pittsburgh, a permit is required whenever there is an open flame inside a public venue -- from the fireworks at the Jan. 10 Rolling Stones concert at Mellon Arena to a lone actor lighting a cigarette onstage at the Benedum Center. In addition, a city fire inspector is required to be backstage, armed with a radio and a fire extinguisher, Micheli said.

"If there is a problem, he has the authority to stop the show at a minute's notice," the chief said.

Before the event, the performers must demonstrate the device they are using to the fire inspectors.

Micheli's office issued 30 pyrotechnic permits last year, he said, covering everything from huge outdoor fireworks displays to flashpots at local rock clubs. He couldn't recall any cases in which city officials learned of shows that went ahead without getting a permit.

"The liability is so great, an owner wouldn't want to," he said.

The Rhode Island nightclub, where the metal band Great White used pyrotechnics that sparked the deadly fire, didn't have the necessary public permit, The Associated Press reported. The band and club owners disagreed over whether the band had permission for the display.

It was the second major fatal incident at a U.S. nightclub this week. On Monday, 21 people died and more than 50 were injured at a Chicago club after a stampede apparently triggered by pepper spray that bouncers used to break up a fight. Some exit doors were locked at the club.

While most local nightclubbers flock to bars in the Strip District and the South Side, those who go outside the city could find buildings with varying safety standards, said Bob Full, chief of Allegheny County Emergency Services.

Each of the county's municipalities is responsible for enacting and enforcing its own building and fire code.

"In some places, where municipal boundaries are right down a street, on one side you'll find a modern building with fire alarms and sprinklers, while on the other side you'll be lucky to have fire extinguishers and exit signs and nothing else," Full said.

He said the county has no authority to enforce local safety codes, explaining that "we can only refer things to local officials."

Staff writer Ellen James contributed to this report.

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