BY ALLIE WRIGHT | MARCH 04, 2013 5:00 AM

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One security guard said the fire moved quickly, suddenly engulfing the crowd. Another said after the fire started, people shoved their way toward the exits, but many tripped and fell. The roof of the building collapsed. Authorities found bodies in the nightclub’s restrooms.

It was “like a war zone,” said Brazilian state lawmaker Valderci Oliveira.

These reports, taken from a CNN story after the January nightclub fire in Santa Maria, Brazil, has boosted a global discussion on how to keep fire disasters from happening in local venues.

More than 230 people died at the Kiss nightclub in Brazil. In the wake of the tragedy, Iowa City officials said they are doing enough to prevent fire disasters from happening locally. But they also advise bar patrons to be fully aware of their surroundings at all times.

Through an ordinance passed more than four years ago, the city has tried to help local establishments find lower-cost methods to retrofit their businesses with sprinkler systems and fire alarms.

The Iowa City City Council approved the Fire/Life-Safety Improvement Loan Program in July 2007, which supplies grants and low-interest loans to local bars and restaurants to assist them in financing the installments of sprinkler systems and fire alarms. The program provided $1 million, which was borrowed from the city’s Landfill Division, on a first-come, first-served basis, to eligible businesses.

Only $123,196.53 in loans and $109,104.14 in grants were provided to businesses, though, so not all of the available funding was used. Several establishments went ahead with the retrofits but chose not to use city dollars. The loan and grant program expired in October 2010. During that time, seven businesses received funding, but after that date, no other businesses could use the financial assistance from the city.

The ordinance established various deadlines for different bars and restaurants in Iowa City to get the systems installed based on occupancy. The ordinance only applies to A2- and B-occupancy level bars — establishments that possess a certain occupancy level and are able to contain large groups of people — that have multiple levels and Alcoholic Beverage Division Licenses.

So far, 22 local businesses have installed or have permits to install the system upgrades, and 19 still have to complete them.

Sixteen of those establishments are only required to install new systems if they have a change in ownership, because they are considered to be a lower hazard than other establishments required to install the systems right away. This is because the buildings have a lower occupancy and are single-story, standalone buildings. If they did catch fire, other establishments would likely not be affected.

Some 46 establishments were required to implement the new systems at the time the City Council passed the ordinance. Two of those — La Casa and the Ground Round — have closed since then.

Three businesses, Quinton’s Bar and Deli, 215 E. Washington St., Panchero’s Mexican Grill, 32 S. Clinton St., and the Airliner, 22 S. Clinton St., are required to install the sprinkler systems by July 1.

Because sprinkler systems require a large supply of water, the city funded the upgrades of a waterline from the water main to each individual establishment during the first 36 months of the ordinance’s implementation. The city provided a grant for this, which was paid from the city’s Water Division.

The amount of the loans and grants could not exceed the cost of the lowest bid provided to a business by a contractor for labor and materials for the installations the program required. The city was willing to pay the amount of the lowest bid available.

The first group had to install its sprinkler and fire alarm systems by July 1, 2010.

“[Bar owners] were wondering if there was some way to prioritize those bars we were most concerned about and do a phased implementation of the ordinance over time,” said Jann Ream, a code enforcement assistant in the Iowa City Building Inspection Division.

The City of Iowa City’s Economic Development Division is currently offering financial assistance to upgrade buildings in downtown and in the Northside Marketplace in Iowa City, including fire safety improvements and sprinkler installation, through the Building Change Downtown Iowa City Incentive Program.

Gabe Lynott, the general manager of the Airliner, 22 S. Clinton St., said the establishment selected the sprinkler system it needs to put in.

While the Airliner does not currently have a sprinkler system, Lynott said, the installation will happen soon.

Despite the lack of a current sprinkler system in the Airliner, he said customers should feel safe in the establishment.

“We want to have a safe capacity, especially because we just got back to the 19-ordinance,” he said. “We do have someone keeping track of the number of underage people as a whole, and then obviously, if it got to the point where we can’t handle the crowd, that would be something we’d have to address.”

The Airliner’s maximum occupancy is 160 for the first floor and 105 for the second floor.

According to CNN, more than 2,000 people were in the Brazilian nightclub at the time of the fire — more than double than the maximum occupancy of 1,000 that was allowed in the establishment.

“Overcrowding is a big thing we focus on,” said John Grier, the fire marshal of the Iowa City Fire Department. “Luckily, it hasn’t been an issue too much for us. I think that our presence and the presence of the Police Department in the community has certainly helped with that.”

A tragedy that occurred in a U.S. nightclub in February 2003 at the Station nightclub in West Warwick, R.I., prompted Iowa City’s action.

More than 100 people died in that fire, according to CNN.

“That Station fire was, for our country, a wake-up call,” said Roger Jensen, the deputy fire chief of the Iowa City Fire Department.

He said the department looked at the scene locally after the nightclub fire, evaluated what was going on in Iowa City, and applied new ways to help curb overcrowding and increase safety in downtown bars.

Stay Safe   

Officials say patrons should also take their safety into their own hands.

• “When you go into a place, look for a sprinkler head and make sure it’s a sprinkled building. When you sit down in a place, look around. Your closest exit may not be the door you came in.”

— Jann Ream, code enforcement assistant of the Iowa City Building Inspection Division

• “If you notice that something is wrong, react. Self-preservation is a big thing.”

— John Grier, Iowa City fire marshal

• “Just like we taught you in grade school, know two ways out.”

— Grier

Crowd-management training was one change that came after the Station fire.

During the training for bar and restaurant employees, Fire Department officials teach them how to recognize something that’s wrong, and then if there is an incident, how to help people exit.

An establishment with a liquor license receives at least one annual inspection to check if fire alarms are working properly, and the Fire Department also does unannounced visits throughout the year.

“Anyone who has a liquor license, they see us at least once a quarter, and sometimes it’s only for a few minutes, but we do at least poke our head in,” Grier said.

The department checks for operational fire alarms and sprinkler systems, blocked exits, and well-lighted exits to ensure patrons do not exit into a dark area, along with overcrowding, he said.

During the evaluation following the Station fire, the department found that many downtown Iowa City bars were above capacity and there were a number of bars that did not have modern fire-alarm systems, Jensen said.

But the Kiss nightclub fire in Brazil did not spark any additional action from the department.

“I’m not aware of any lessons learned from the Brazilian event that we haven’t already taken into account and provided some sort of mitigation strategy to prevent a horrible tragedy like that in Iowa City,” Jensen said.

However, Iowa City is not immune to fire-related accidents in bars.

A well-known case locally is a fire that broke out in 2002 at an establishment then known as Et Cetera, 118 S. Dubuque St., which received a fine and had its license suspended after the incident. In that case, a bartender reportedly poured Everclear on the bar and lit it on fire. The flames went out of control and nine people reportedly were injured. The bar was sold in June 2002, two months after the incident. The bar’s former owner voluntarily gave up his liquor license.

Breakdown of establishments that have or have not implemented sprinkler systems

• 46 — Number of establishments that were required to install systems at the time the City Council approved the plan.

• 22 — Establishments that have installed or are permitted to install the upgrades.

• 16 — Number of establishments that are only required to install sprinkler system if they have an ownership change.

• 2 — Businesses that have gone out of business since the ordinance was passed.

• 3 — Number of establishments that need to install systems by July 1.

• 3 — Number of establishments that are no longer required to install upgrades because they were remodeled.

Bruegger’s Bagels on Iowa Ave. also burned down last year. The restaurant did not have a sprinkler system in place at that time, but they were not legally required to do so.

Neither the Station in Rhode Island or Kiss in Brazil nightclubs had sprinkler systems installed at the time of their fires, said Robert Rowe, a fire expert and fire-and-building-code consultant at Pyrocop, based in California, who was also part of the investigation team for the Station fire.

If the nightclubs had sprinkler systems, Rowe said, many lives would have been saved.

“A fully functioning, properly designed, properly installed fire-alarm system, as well as a fire-sprinkler system, would have, without doubt, prevented the fatalities that occurred in the Station fire, as well as the one in Brazil,” he said. “There’s no question there.”

But patrons need to be proactive about their own safety in an establishment, Grier said.

“By nature, humans go back to the door they came in and will bypass a viable exit to get there,” Grier said. “Well, where is everybody else going? That same door, so it’s crowded.”

If people think a bar is too crowded, they should leave and contact the Fire Department to report the problem, he said.

Grier, who said he has had frequent discussions about bar safety with his own children, cautions them to be aware of their surroundings when they are among large crowds.

“I would tell my son and my daughter to be aware of your surroundings and know the quickest way out,” he said. “Just like we taught you in grade school, know two ways out.”

Grier said the department is more present downtown during peak overcrowding times, such as football season.

“If you notice that something is wrong, react,” Grier said. “Self-preservation is a big thing.”


Seven establishments have received funding assistance from Iowa City.

• Sanctuary and the Deadwood received loan funds.

• Aoeshe, Dublin Underground, and One-Twenty-Six received grant funds.

• One-Eyed Jakes (which no longer exists) and Givanni’s received loan and grant funds.

Self-preservation comes from having common sense, Ream said.

“You can tell if there is an occupancy load of 200 and there are more than 300 people here,” she said. “Don’t stay. My God, use your head.”

That is exactly what some University of Iowa students say they do.

“I feel the bars are really crowded, and if there were to be a fire or something, it’d be like mass chaos, and I don’t think people would be able to make it out safely,” said UI freshman Madison Makeever.

She always looks for exits while she is in bars in downtown Iowa City, she said, and if the bar seems as if it is getting too crowded, she leaves.

One student said he believes local bar owners are doing what they can to keep their establishments safe.

“[The Brazilian nightclub fire] didn’t really worry me, because they were, from what I understood, really over capacity. I think a lot of the establishments around Iowa City do a fairly good job of keeping it under fire-safety regulations,” said UI sophomore Daniel Kult. “I’m not that worried, I guess.”

Grier said he agreed.

“Nobody wants to be that bar that’s in the headline or that restaurant that’s in the headline,” Grier said. “I think, you know, they’re like you and I and they want to be safe. They want their people to come back and have fun and tell everybody else that they had fun and it was safe.”

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