This past week — as always — the Wednesday Night Dance party at Toad’s Place was packed. But two recent night-club tragedies have added a new element of concern for New Haven club-goers, club owners, and the fire department.
On Feb. 21, a fire ripped through a nightclub in West Warwick, R.I., killing 96 people and injuring at least 187. During a performance by the metal band Great White, sparks from a pyrotechnic display apparently ignited the foam soundproofing material lining the walls. In a matter of seconds, a fire had engulfed the entire club. According to fire marshals, neither the band nor the club had a permit for the use of pyrotechnics.
Just four days before, a stampede in a Chicago nightclub began when security guards used mace and pepper spray to break up a fistfight between two women. Several exit doors apparently had been locked or blocked, and the club had twice the permitted capacity. The ensuing crush left 21 dead.
In light of these events, many club-goers have begun to take nightclub safety even more seriously.
Michael Johns, the Yale University Fire Marshall, said that while his office has always done a thorough job, the Rhode Island fire added a sense of emotional urgency.
“It makes you concerned and it makes you review all procedures and processes,” Johns said. “Obviously you can’t see a thing like that unfold without making sure you aren’t doing all you can do to prevent it.”
Johns said that in his time at the university there have been no fires during a Yale-sanctioned student assembly. Michael Grant, chief of the New Haven Fire Department, said that a public assembly officer visits different clubs, bars, and theaters every evening for safety spot checks, looking at everything from the accessibility of exits to crowd size. The officers come unannounced and may not even notify anyone of their presence if nothing is found wrong.
Grant suggested that anyone entering a club be aware of his or her surroundings. People should look for exits — including windows — be leery of overcrowding, and should react when the fire alarm goes off. Grant said that people should be “pro-active.”
“If you see a chain on an exit, tell a manager,” Grant said. “If they won’t change it, leave.”
Joe Cappucci, Fire Marshall of New Haven, emphasized the danger of pyrotechnics. According to Connecticut law, a license must be obtained before pyrotechnics of any kind can be used. The space must be evaluated by a licensed pyrotechnician and by Cappucci himself, and there must be a rehearsal three hours before the show to make sure that all safety measures are in place. No pyrotechnics are allowed in Yale buildings.
Cappucci also stressed the importance of sprinklers in places of public assembly. In Connecticut, sprinklers are required for any space with a capacity greater than 300. But Cappucci said he thought sprinklers should be required in all places of public assembly. Both Cappucci and Johns said a sprinkler system at the Rhode Island nightclub would have saved many lives.
Club owners and managers also reported an increased state of awareness — although most said their actual policies have not changed, and that they have always followed regulations.
Ande Cira, a manager at BAR, said BAR has exits in all rooms and at least four security guards on Thursday, Friday, and Saturday nights — with a police officer. They use a clicker at the door to prevent overcrowding.
“It’s more on everyone’s mind right now,” Cira said. “But we still haven’t made any changes because we followed regulations to begin with.”
Likewise, a manager at Toads underlined the fact that Toads has 10 to 12 security guards on duty on busy nights, with at least one policeman at the door. There are also exits at three of the four walls. Pyrotechnics are not allowed.
In the end, the safety of club-goers lies only partly in the hands of the clubs themselves. Cappucci explained that a certain amount of personal judgment must also be used.
“We’ve seen what panic can do in Chicago and what fire can do in Rhode Island,” Cappucci said. “What I would like to get out to the students is to know where the exits are. If you hear the alarm go off, or if you see something that’s not right, get out of the building. The building you can replace; kids you can’t.”