Sussex County Delaware

More Action Needed
on Nightclub Safety
Letter to the Editor

State Representative, 40th District, R-Laurel

Biff Lee, the Delaware House Majority Whip, is a Delaware State Representative representing the 38th Representative District.

Delaware Representative Biff Lee

Dear Editor,

Following two recent nightclub tragedies that killed a combined 119 people, there is an understandable urgency to reexamine what we're doing about nightclub safety here in Delaware.

Anyone who believes that the stampede at a Chicago nightclub that killed 21, or the Rhode Island fire that claimed 98 lives, couldn't happen here is mistaken. If there is anything that my 32 years of fighting fires has taught me, it's that fatal incidents can happen anytime, anywhere and often when you least expect them.

Delaware has been vigilant about protecting the public from fire. We have one of the strictest requirements for smoke detectors in the nation. And we have regulations to help ensure Delaware's nightlife doesn't lead to tomorrow's national headlines.

In the Rhode Island fire, indoor pyrotechnics ignited during a band performance set flammable foam on the walls ablaze. While no regulation can prevent disasters from occurring, common sense precautions and active enforcement make it less likely to happen.

Any Delaware businesses wanting to set off indoor fireworks must apply to the Office of the State Fire Marshall or its city counterpart in Wilmington, Newark or Dover. In addition to approval from fire safety experts, a fire fighting presence must also be at the event. According to State Fire Marshall Willard Preston, this usually means stationing a fire engine at the scene or placing fire personnel inside the venue with extinguishers.

Delaware mirrors the national standard requiring sprinkler systems for any venue that holds more than 300 people. But unlike the National Fire Protection Association guidelines, which contain no recommendation on the physical size of the building, Delaware mandates sprinklers for any public building meeting or exceeding 10,000 square feet.

In the resort area, where nightclub overcrowding has been most likely to occur, personnel with the fire marshal's office regularly meet with club operators prior to the summer season to discuss fire safety and the law. In addition to their regular operations, the agency conducts six to 10 sweeps of resort area clubs during the summer to make unannounced inspections. The inspections cover dozens of areas, looking at everything from marked exits and fire extinguishers to materials storage and emergency lighting.

In the wake of the Rhode Island fire, these aggressive steps are being expanded statewide.

However, there are some things that can be done to improve Delaware's prevention efforts. Currently, any violation of the state's fire prevention regulations draws a fine of $100 per incident. Mr. Preston believes, and I agree, that's not a very effective deterrent to discouraging dangerous behavior. In fact, some club operators may even be calculating any potential fine into their cost of doing business.

Mr. Preston has proposed changing the law so club operators violating the occupancy capacity would face fines ranging between $10 and $100 for every person exceeding the limit. The fine structure would allow judges to match the penalty to the situation, with repeat offenders or more egregious violations being treated more harshly.

In addition to considering this idea, it may also be worth exploring whether money raised through these fines should be earmarked for supporting enforcement activities.

The fire marshal's office was due to start a program of examining apartment building doors as the result of a fatal fire that took place in New Castle County seven years ago. As a result of the increased emphasis on nightclub activities, the agency is being forced to delay those inspections. Increased activity means more personnel and longer hours. Designating penalty money to help offset these costs would seem to make sense.

The harbinger of tragedy is complacency. While I'm confident that Delaware's fire safety efforts have not been complacent, I'm not entirely satisfied. I support Mr. Preston's call for stiffer penalties against overcrowding and I pledge help enact this and other changes to improve our fire safety programs.

State Rep. Biff Lee

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