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Rhode Island learned from deadly ’03 fire

– A decade after a 2003 nightclub fire killed 100 people in Rhode Island, daily reminders of the tragedy persist in the state’s strict fire code.

Movie theaters, concert halls and nightclubs make a loud announcement before the show starts to draw the audience’s attention to emergency exits. Many workplaces have installed sprinklers and alarms systems that once were not required. A casino’s carpeting, wood and even paint are treated to resist fire and exit signs are everywhere, including in the floors.

As news unfolded Monday of the detention of three people in Santa Maria, Brazil, for a nightclub fire over the weekend that killed more than 230 people, fire officials and survivors of the Feb. 20, 2003, blaze at The Station nightclub in West Warwick, R.I., say there are lessons for Brazil and elsewhere from the sweeping changes made here in the months after the fire, when state lawmakers put into place the nation’s most stringent fire regulations.

“It’s wasted life, because they didn’t take the precautions that they should have taken,” said Frank Sylvester, chief of the Lime Rock Fire District in Lincoln, R.I., who serves on the state’s Fire Safety Code Board of Appeal. “The rest of the country could adopt our fire codes, and I’d like to see the rest of the world adopt the fire codes in the state of Rhode Island.”

Rhode Island’s codes are based, in part, on standards developed by the National Fire Protection Association, said state Fire Marshal Jack Chartier. While some other states use those standards, Rhode Island’s law applied to all buildings, new and old. Many states allow “grandfathering” when they update fire codes, so old buildings don’t have to comply.

The state also has what’s referred to as the “Red Book,” 400 pages of Rhode Island-specific rules and regulations, including that venues publicly announce the locations of exits before performances, as well as many other provisions, Chartier said.

Many venues were forced to install sprinkler systems and make other expensive renovations after the code began requiring changes in 2004. The Odeum in East Greenwich, a nonprofit performing arts venue in a 1926 building that was once a vaudeville house, was forced to close in 2007 because it could not afford to pay $200,000 to install sprinklers.

Since then, some changes have been made to help businesses comply, and on Saturday the theater reopened. Rather than installing sprinklers, it reupholstered all its seats with fireproof material, installed new doors and stairways, lighting, a sprinkler system in the boiler room, a new firewall, and other changes, the theater’s co-chair Frank Prosnitz said. The work still cost a few hundred thousand dollars.

Before the Rhode Island fire in 2003, the local fire inspector failed to note that flammable foam was being used as soundproofing to line the inside of the club.

Local fire inspectors now get much more training and are required to sit for a national certification exam, Chartier said. Fire inspectors also visit clubs during nighttime hours when it’s fully occupied, and they do unannounced inspections.

Nightclubs are also required to have emergency plans and have trained crowd management personnel on scene during each show. They must check before and during the show that fire exits are clear. If a fire alarm goes off, it will automatically turn the lights up and the music off.