R.I. fire legislation to raise sprinkler biz, awareness

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Friday, August 1, 2003

PROVIDENCE, R.I. - After months of study into the fire at The Station nightclub, Rhode Island Gov. Donald Carcieri signed into law a slate of regulations that could cost state businesses $100 million to comply with the new rules.

The Comprehensive Fire Safety Act of 2003, which is estimated to affect between 2,000 and 3,000 businesses in the state, significantly tightens regulations that govern the installation of automatic fire sprinkler and fire alarm systems in places with certain occupancy levels or special types of uses.

Sprinkler contractors in the state, such as Pierce Fire Protection, reported that they are already hard at work on projects relating to the new fire regulations, which hit particularly hard places of assembly with occupancies of 150 people or more. Nightclubs that serve alcohol and have occupancies of 150 people or more must install sprinklers by 2006, while other places of assembly with occupancy levels of 300 or more are required to install systems by July 2005.

“We are already working on some of them, about four or five,” said Rebecca Pierce, president of the Coventry, R.I.-based company. “With the new regulations, it’s going to be intense.”

The law, which was enacted in early July, also eliminates a key clause in the state’s fire codes that grandfathered certain existing buildings from such safety requirements as sprinkler systems. The fire at The Station club in West Warwick burned the club to the ground Feb. 20 and killed 100 people when a rock band’s pyrotechnics display caused a quickly spreading fire. The club did not have an automatic sprinkler system.

Pierce said estimating an average job under the new rules would be difficult considering the differences between each building affected by the job, but business owners in the state can count on financing help from the Small Business Administration. That entity is backing low-interest loans, ranging from $5,000 to $50,000 that will be offered by 10 different financial institutions in the state.

The passage of the legislation, and particularly the elimination of the grandfather clause, is seen by some in the industry as a bellwether in the code-setting process at the state level, given the national attention garnered by the nightclub fire.

“There have been other states that have been looking at this and waiting for Rhode Island to make their move, “ said Richard Skinner, Northeast regional manger for the National Fire Sprinkler Association. “This is going to affect the industry as a whole, not just one particular area.”

Coupled with proposed legislation before the House Ways and Means Committee, HR 1842, which would offer tax incentives for property owners to install sprinkler systems, Skinner said the financing from the SBA would provide significant savings to installation projects.