City increases fire code enforcement at bars, restaurants 

A Safer Sambuca

"You didn't have to wait for a drink, that's for sure."

It's the bright side of a recent Keller Williams concert at the Music Farm, says manager Kristen Thompson. Attendance was off by more than half compared to his last show, but it wasn't from a lack of interest.

The popular concert venue had to cut its capacity last month from 960 to 299 due to fire inspector concerns that included an insufficient sprinkler system. With $15,000 in upgrades, business was back to normal at the Farm as of Friday. Other venues have also been cited in the past few weeks for fire code violations, including four busted on New Year's Eve for going over their allowed capacity.

Thompson and other bar owners are welcoming the opportunity to get up to code and improve safety. And they'll be seeing more of the city's fire marshals, who are expected to be visiting local bars and restaurants on a weekly basis. The city is ramping up fire enforcement in hopes of avoiding another Sofa Super Store fire — or worse, the kind of crowded house tragedies that can leave masses of people without an exit.

When Tom Scholtens, the city's building codes director and fire marshal, came to Charleston two and a half years ago, there were two fire inspectors. By the end of this month, he expects to have nine employees certified for fire code enforcement.

They'll visit all of the city's commercial structures, but Scholtens says it's important to start with businesses where there is the most danger for property loss and personal loss ­— and that means bars and restaurants.

"This is life and death stuff we're talking about," Sholtens says.

And he has tragic historical precedence behind him on this one. There's no doubt where the push for increased enforcement comes from — Charleston's 2007 sofa store blaze killed nine firefighters, with fire code violations cited as one concern. But bar owners and enforcement agents also point to the Great White tragedy in February 2003, when a pyrotechnic rock show at a Rhode Island barroom left 97 people dead.

"I've got the video of that fire if you want to see it," Sholtens says with a stern sense of duty. "It's about 11 minutes long and the screaming stops at about minute four."

On Dec. 31, 2007, Scholtens and one other fire inspector went out with police officers on New Year's to monitor bars for overcrowding.

"We went out and encountered all kinds of problems," he says.

On the job, Scholtens says he finds locked or blocked doors, inoperative sprinkler systems, and exits that aren't easily identified. There are also problems with ventilation in the kitchens or something as simple as which way a door might swing open. Violations are usually due to ignorance.

"Many people think that if they're in business, then it's okay," he says.

The department divided up the city for New Year's 2009, with individual agents responsible for King Street, Meeting Street, James Island, and West Ashley.

The inspectors went out to the bars early — some days in advance — to discuss party plans and ensure the owners were aware that the city would be counting heads come New Year's.

Aaron Siegel, a manager at Hometeam BBQ, was glad the inspector showed him what needed to be done for code compliance on New Year's so that he didn't get in trouble on the big night. He says that it's mostly stuff he should have done anyway.

"In the long run, you know it's the right thing to do," he says of improving fire safety. "As business owners, we've got to be educated. If we're not, we set ourselves up for failure."

Fire inspectors warned managers at the Tin Roof in West Ashley that they'd have to watch their 98-person limit, says manager Erin Tyler. The bar owners took no chances, with 50 people standing in line out front once the bar reached capacity.

"It was a tough call for us seeing those people waiting outside," Tyler says.

But the fire inspectors also offered suggestions on how the bar could expand its capacity, by relocating indoor exits and adding another one to the patio. The suggestions have the bar looking at options and excited at the opportunity for a little more business, Tyler says.

Four citations were issued on New Year's for overcrowding. The bars are on probation; if there are no similar violations in the next year, the tickets are forgiven. For those bar owners whose venues weren't up to code, Scholtens says that they're allowed to continue operating as long as they're showing progress toward making the necessary improvements.

At the Farm, the main room was protected, but other rooms like the box office and backstage required sprinkler installation.

"If your sprinkler system isn't up to code, it's like you don't have one," Thompson says. That meant a maximum capacity of 299 for a little more than two weeks while the work was done to fix the problem. Meanwhile, the Farm made other recommended changes like cleaning out the space under the stage and adding a safety rail to the loading dock. The bar is also going to be treating window drapes with a flame retardant every six weeks.

With the reduced capacity, the Farm had to turn away patrons on three nights, including the Keller Williams show.

"It's very expensive improvements at a very tough time," she says. "On a night when we should have made a lot of money, we were just hoping to break even."

But Thompson, like the other bar owners, says she's happy the improvements have made the venue safer in the end.

"Nobody's complaining about having to do that," she says.

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