Chattanooga requires nightclub fire sprinklers

NFSA is instrumental in providing information to persuade city to approve requirement
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Tuesday, June 7, 2011

PATTERSON, N.Y.—Testimony from a burn survivor of a deadly nightclub fire in Rhode Island helped persuade the city of Chattanooga, Tenn. this spring to require nightclubs to install fire sprinklers as of 2013, according to the National Fire Sprinkler Association, which is based here.

The NFSA asked Robert Feeney, who was severely burned and lost his fiancée and three friends in The Station nightclub fire in 2003 in West Warwick, R.I., to testify before the Chattanooga City Council about the need for sprinklers. A total of 100 people died in that fire and dozens more were injured.

“Basically, I wouldn’t be here today had The Station had a sprinkler system,” Feeney told councilors, according to a written copy of his testimony.

Wayne Waggoner, NFSA southeast regional manager, told Security Systems News that the April council meeting was Feeney’s first time testifying in public.

“If it hadn’t been for him, I don’t know if we would have gotten what we got,” Waggoner said.

Waggoner, with help from NFSA associate director of public fire protection Vickie Pritchett, was instrumental in orchestrating the push to get the council to pass the sprinkler requirements for all nightclubs by the year 2013 by adopting the NFPA 101 Life Safety Code. ck

Waggoner told SSN the latest version of the code requires sprinklers at all new nightclubs and also at existing nightclubs that can seat 100 patrons or more.

But the issue became a hot political one after owners of Chattanooga’s approximately two dozen existing nightclubs objected to the cost of adding sprinklers.

“The vote got delayed about three times because of politics and finally we knew it was coming up for the last one,” said Waggoner, who is a retired fire chief/fire marshal from Tennessee and advises local fire officials on code issues.

About a week before the vote, Waggoner said he told Chattanooga fire officials: “We played the factual part of this for the last year, and now maybe we should go for the emotional side of it.”

So Waggoner contacted Pritchett. In a statement on the NFSA web site, she said Waggoner asked her to “bring Rob Feeney, burn survivor of The Station nightclub and Jeff and Mike Derderian, business owners of The Station, knowing that we had a relationship with these individuals because of our work with the Phoenix Society for Burn Survivors.”

Brothers Michael and Jeffrey Derderian in 2006 pleaded no contest to 100 counts each of involuntary manslaughter in connection with the fire at their nightclub.

A judge sentenced Michael Derderian to four years in prison and Jeffrey Derderian had to do 500 hours of community service.

Waggoner said the Derderians were not able to attend the Chattanooga meeting in person, but sent a letter to the council urging it to support the sprinkler measure.

“No business owner … ever wants to be us—where you go to sleep and wake up every day thinking about what happened in a business you owned, and that a sprinkler system would have changed the outcome in some way,” the brothers wrote.

Waggoner said the council’s 5-4 vote is significant because Chattanooga’s nightclubs are frequented not only by the increasing numbers of tourists in the city but by students at the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga.

Although he said his position is that all nightclubs should have sprinklers, even existing ones that serve less than 100 patrons, he believes  the council’s decision “will make a difference in saving somebody’s life.”