In the wake of a fire that killed nearly 100 at The Station nightclub in Rhode Island, lawmakers will spend the next few months debating tighter fire-safety regulations.
In these debates Miami, Florida, which has nearly 200 nightclubs clustered around Coconut Grove, may emerge as a model. Miami has a great deal of pride in a strict regulatory regime that appears to work reasonably well. Miami regularly inspects all nightclubs following strict rules and calls for plenty of input from business owners on insuring safety. While dozens of people died every year in Miami’s clubs before the regulations went into effect, only a handful have died in the last decade, nearly all of them from drug overdoses. When it comes to preventing stampedes like the one that killed 21 in Chicago early last week, indeed, more and smarter regulation on the Miami model might make sense.
But better regulation would not have helped the 100 people who died in Rhode Island. The Station’s exits weren’t blocked and the club had recently passed an safety inspection that presumably included an analysis of its fire extinguishers, exit signs, and evacuation plans. None of this helped. While only a fool would follow the path of heavy-metal band Great White and set off fireworks indoors, Rhode Island law already prohibited nearly all indoor pyrotechnics anyway. The state of Rhode Island has already announced re-inspections of every nightclub in the state and other jurisdictions will likely follow suit. Regulations and enforcement will grow tighter and club owners, concertgoers, and taxpayers will pay millions for dubious safety improvements.
Installing more sprinkler systems, however, could save both lives and money. By snuffing out The Station fire before it started, a sprinkler would have saved nearly all of the 100 lives. According to the United States Fire Administration, no more than two people have ever died in an ordinary fire in building with a working sprinkler system. In the last five years, it appears that no one — except for fire fighters — has died in an ordinary fire in a fully sprinklered building. While less than two percent of all buildings have sprinkler systems, significantly more public buildings have them. In Fresno, California — which mandates sprinkler systems in nearly all public buildings in its downtown — the American Fire Sprinkler Association reports only $42,000 in downtown fire-related property damage in the ten years since the law went into effect.
A sprinkler system in a medium-sized building like The Station nightclub would cost tens of thousands of dollars: A lot of money but significantly less than the multimillion-dollar value that insurance companies and government agencies place on a single human life. (Sprinklers cost about $1.50 to $2.00 per square foot; about the same as carpet.) States and municipalities enact fire codes to safeguard lives. Since sprinkler systems appear to do so spectacularly in safeguarding people, there’s a good case for exempting buildings with sprinkler systems from fire inspections altogether, except, perhaps, to a periodic check to insure that the sprinkler system works. Private insurance companies, for their part, will continue to mandate cost-effective means to safeguard property and commonsense design decisions (such as building theater doors that swing outward). With potential reward of eliminating code-compliance problems in return for this regulatory relief, owners of older buildings will jump at the chance to install sprinkler systems. And many fewer people will die as a result.
— Eli Lehrer is a senior editor of The American Enterprise.