Editorial: Only you can prevent nightclub fires


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In cities all over, January's massive nightclub fire in Brazil has brought new attention to a particularly arcane set of policies: fire codes. More than 230 people were killed when a fire started in the overcrowded club and quickly spread; the event reminded many of the danger of nightclub fires, a fear especially relevant in a town with as many bars-per-capita as Iowa City.

The history of nightclub fire fatalities is long and frequently features locales far closer to home than Brazil. In 2003, more than 100 people died in a Rhode Island nightclub after pyrotechnics set off by the ’80s rock band Great White ignited some exposed foam insulation, sparking a massive fire. Iowa City itself had a nearly disastrous event of its own in 2002 when a bartender lit a large pool of Everclear on fire and injured nine people in the process. Thankfully, that fire was contained.

Nightclub fires are almost always the product of freak accidents. In most of these cases, however, small accidents are allowed to grow into major tragedies by failures to comply with strict fire codes.

In Brazil, the club was full beyond its maximum capacity. According to a case study of nightclub fires by the National Fire Protection Association, combustible interior finishes, inadequate and poorly marked exits, and inadequate sprinkler systems are also major contributing factors to nightclub fires.

All of the major contributors to nightclub fires can be prevented either through city regulation and enforcement or through personal vigilance. The *Daily Iowan* Editorial Board advocates for both. The city of Iowa City should do everything in its power to make sure that the city’s bars are fully compliant with the fire codes; students and other bar patrons should make sure that they are always aware of their surroundings and do their best to avoid dangerously oversized crowds.

Currently, the city enforces the fire codes by performing quarterly inspections of every Iowa City establishment with a liquor license to ensure that the establishments are under their maximum capacities and that their exits are clear and properly labeled, among other things.

That's not to say that Iowa City's bars could not be safer. Many bars still do not have sprinkler systems installed. In 2007, the city set aside $1 million for loans and grants to help local establishments install new sprinkler systems. By the time the program expired in 2010, less than a quarter of the money had been used and only seven establishments had opted to upgrade their sprinklers using public funds.

Today, 19 bars in Iowa City have yet to upgrade their sprinkler systems, though most of those are considered low-risk because they are low-occupancy, single-story establishments.

Still, we call on the city and business owners to work together to finish the job of creating a safe environment for bar patrons wherever they may be.

Business owners and city officials alone, however, cannot complete the job of preventing nightclub fires. We also need help from the bar patrons themselves. If a place seems overcrowded, get out.

You could be putting yourself in danger by hanging around in a bar that’s full beyond its capacity.

It may be that nightclub fires are the product of random chance; but if we all work together to improve fire safety mechanisms and reduce overcrowding, we can certainly improve our odds.

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