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Fire inspections aim to prevent disaster

BRECKENRIDGE – Firefighters in Summit County were horrified as they watched footage of the fire that ripped through a Rhode Island nightclub last Thursday.

“It makes you think, “Could that happen here?'” said Kim O’Brien, public information officer for the Red, White and Blue Fire Department in Breckenridge. “We haven’t had a major event at a nightclub in Summit County, but the potential is there. In Rhode Island, the business owner didn’t know pyrotechnics were being used; the next thing he knows, he’s got 96 people lying dead on his property.”

Four days earlier, 21 people died in a stampede in Chicago when a security guard allegedly sprayed pepper spray at two women who were fighting, and people panicked, thinking it was toxic fumes. Another security guard reportedly bolted an exit door as he left the establishment, preventing people from leaving.



Preventing the loss of life and property is why the Breckenridge fire department alone conducts more than 100 business safety inspections each month.

“We’ve been very lucky,” O’Brien said. “It’s partly because of the work we’ve done and partly because of luck that we have not had a situation where people have gotten trampled.”



Business owners and managers sometimes lock emergency exit doors to keep people from trying to sneak in. They also block doors with furniture because in resort towns, they need every inch of space they can get.

Most violations are unintentional, O’Brien said. And fireworks would likely never be permitted inside a business.

Locally, anyone holding a fireworks show must have a state license and a certified pyrotechnician on scene and must conduct a demonstration beforehand. The Red, White and Blue department gets four to five requests each year, most of those for outdoor shows.

The owner of the Rhode Island nightclub said he never gave the band permission to light fireworks in the 60-year-old building. And Chicago authorities say the nightclub’s owner failed recent fire inspections and should not have been open for business.

During inspections, firefighters look for safety hazards, including burned out exit light bulbs, blocked pathways, where combustibles are stored and if extinguishers are charged.

“We’re not there to get the business owners,” O’Brien said. “We don’t say, “You need to spend a bunch of money to do this or that.’ It’s the safety of the public, the safety of the business. We try to stay on top of things.”

The building department determines occupant loads – the number of people allowed in public buildings.

“Business owners want to see more people in their establishment because it means more money,” O’Brien said. “But in an incident like this – especially when alcohol’s involved like in these horrific tragedies this week – we ask them to adhere to the occupant load.”

Even then, buildings – particularly subterranean and older structures – are prone to fire.

“It can always be a matter of time before something happens anytime, anywhere,” O’Brien said. “But when fire happens, people do crazy things. It’s definitely flight mode people are in.”

Additional challenges are that windows fog up at night, bands situate themselves in front of them and people mingle in front of exit doors. And what passes for good on inspection day might be different that night.

“It might come to the point where we do spot-checks at off-hours,” O’Brien said. “But we feel we have good relationships with our business owners. They know what needs to be done. Most people like to stay in the good graces of the fire department, the police department and the town.”

Jane Stebbins can be reached at (970) 668-3998 ext. 228 or jstebbins@summitdaily.com.


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