PROVIDENCE, R.I. (WPRI) — Five months after 100 people lost their lives in the Station nightclub fire, Rhode Island lawmakers passed the most sweeping changes to its fire code in state history.
And despite some early calls to ease the requirements of the new code by businesses who felt the rules were overly burdensome, the law has remained largely intact.
State Fire Marshal Timothy McLaughlin said the overhaul of the code has made Rhode Island “probably the safest state in the country” when it comes to fire safety.
“When they did this in 2003, they did it for a reason,” McLaughlin said. “We saw what happened, the pledge back then was ‘we never want this to happen again,’ and I don’t think we’ll ever see that again.”
The Comprehensive Fire Safety Act was signed into law by then-Gov. Don Carcieri in July 2003. It made a host of changes, including requiring sprinkler systems in places of assembly that hold 150 people or more, exit signs at floor level in case people are crawling through a smoke-filled room, and requiring an announcement at the beginning of an event to point out exits.
It also required fire alarms in three-family or larger residences to be connected to each other so that if one goes off, they all do.
But McLaughlin said the biggest change was the elimination of the grandfather clause. Prior to the law’s passage, older buildings were often subject to the fire code from the year they will built.
“Now everybody had to come compliant,” McLaughlin said.
Suddenly businesses had to upgrade their fire alarm systems and, in some cases, install expensive fire suppression systems. (Some buildings, like places of worship, were exempt.) McLaughlin was a local fire marshal in Pawtucket at the time and recalled business owners complaining, “I remember them saying, ‘You’re going to put me out of business, these codes are draconian, why are you doing this?'”
“You can’t put a price tag on safety,” McLaughlin said, adding if the law was in place in 2003, the Station would have had sprinklers. “Sprinklers save lives. That’s a proven fact.”
He said over the years, as buildings came up to code, and new structures were being constructed with the required equipment, the angst over the code has ebbed.
The law also empowered the State Fire Marshal’s Office itself, granting inspectors there the ability to issue fines if a building is in violation of the code. It also gave the marshal the authority to issue an administrative search warrant — with approval from a judge — to enter buildings where an inspector has been denied access. McLaughlin said those are rarely used.
“I think it gave the office some teeth that we didn’t have at the time,” he said.
The fire marshal has jurisdiction over state licensed facilities — like hospitals, day cares, state buildings — while local fire departments handle the majority of business and residential inspections in their towns.
Since the law went into effect, the State Fire Marshal’s Office has conducted 1,478 inspections on state licensed facilities, and 414 surprise inspections on nightclubs, the latter resulting in $25,500 in fines.
McLaughlin said the office stopped the nightclub inspections during the pandemic, but will be starting them again very soon.
“Fair warning — at some point you are probably going to see our office in whatever community you’re in,” McLaughlin said. “We’re going to be back out there making sure everyone is compliant.”
One significant change in fire prevention and safety happened without a new law, McLaughlin said, and that was a no-tolerance policy approach to the fire code. Before, inspectors may have cut some businesses some slack, but not anymore.
“For something minor you would say, ‘OK, fix it.’ But not today,” McLaughlin said. “My inspectors know that when they go out, you’re either compliant or you’re not.”
For those who are found to be in violation of the code, the law also established the Fire Safety Code Board of Appeal and Review to seek relief from a fine or a variance to the code.
McLaughlin said the board is primarily allowing for more time to get up to code rather than issuing blanket variances. He said, especially as of late, property owners sometimes need an extension to meet the requirements due to supply chain issues causing delays in acquiring fire doors and alarm technology.
“They can’t get the supplies,” McLaughlin said. “So, they will go to the board and generally the board will ask us our opinion and we’ll agree with business owner because of time, they’re all doing it in good faith.”
Tim White (firstname.lastname@example.org) is the Target 12 managing editor and chief investigative reporter at 12 News, and the host of Newsmakers. Connect with him on Twitter and Facebook.