Business challenges constitutionality of state fire sprinkler law
Meanwhile, fire officials say some establishments are trying to circumvent the law by getting their occupancy permit lowered to less than 100 or changing their type of business so they can qualify for an exemption.
“Anecdotally, I am aware of situations where I am told building officials have reduced occupancy from about 100 to 99,” said Stephen Coan, state fire marshal.
“In itself, that is not illegal or unethical,” he said. “What I would take exception to is a system that reduces it solely for the purpose of avoiding sprinklers.”
On Tuesday, attorney Paul F. Kavanaugh appeared in Superior Court in Brockton on behalf of Charlene and Robert Conway, owners of the Carousel Family Fun Center in Whitman.
The sprinkler law, enacted in 2004 and effective in November 2007, is “unconstitutionally vague,” he said.
The town is seeking to have the Conways' business, a roller skating rink with an occupancy permit for 428 people, shut down because a sprinkler system was not installed in accordance with the law.
Judge Charles Hely took that request under advisement, but ordered the occupancy of the building not exceed 99 pending a ruling in the case.
Under the law, a sprinkler system is required at establishments with a seating capacity of 100 or more that are used or occupied as a nightclub, discotheque, dance hall, bar or for similar entertainment purposes.
Exemptions include municipal buildings, houses of worship, schools and restaurants.
Kavanaugh said the Conways are caught in a law that offers no guidance, standards or procedures.
“It leaves enforcement to one person, fire chiefs,” he said outside the courtroom. “The statute is subject to abuse, it doesn't apply notice.”
Station fire led to law
The law is considered the most comprehensive safety legislation since 492 people died in Boston's Cocoanut Grove fire.
It came in response to the February 2003 Rhode Island nightclub fire that killed 100 people, including 40 from Massachusetts.
“This law is very consistent with other sprinkler laws in the state,” Coan, the state fire marshal, said Tuesday.
He said a state appeals board, through its decisions, provides definition and guidance to fire chiefs and business owners.
Since the law is enforced by local fire chiefs, the state Department of Fire Services does not have data on compliance.
But fire officials say there has been resistance and they fear some establishments are trying to circumvent the law by reducing occupancy caps, although there is no statistical confirmation.
“I listen to some of my brother chiefs and they talk about the problems they had,” said West Bridgewater Fire Chief Leonard Hunt. “I'm sure there were places that had to make a decision on how much money to spend and figure a way out of this.”
In Randolph, fire and building officials refused to sign a liquor license for the Randolph Country Club, claiming the change of business designation from club to restaurant was a way to circumvent the law. As a club, a sprinkler system would be required; it would not be required for a restaurant.
Stoughton Fire Chief David Jardin said a business there, Whiplash, is remodeling to meet the new fire regulations after the liquor license was suspended.
“It's a good thing, it forced them to remodel,” he said. “In return, they'll have a better place. They're doing everything right.”
Changing occupancy is more than changing numbers on a piece of paper, according to Jardin. He said the changes may require an engineer and, if there's a liquor license, must be reflected there, too.
Occupancy key factor
Local building inspectors are charged with setting occupancy limits. Under the sprinkler law, an establishment that exceeds its occupancy cap twice in one year or exceeds the cap by 50 percent or more is required to immediately install a sprinkler system.
“I'm sure that communities that are concerned that there may be some circumventing of the law are going to be watching those issues,” said Jennifer Meith, a spokesman for the state Department of Fire Safety.
In Brockton, eight occupancy caps were reduced, including one in an area of the Fuller Craft Museum, where sprinklers were added to some areas to comply with a ruling of the state sprinkler appeals board.
That board, organized under the state Department of Fire Safety, has the authority to overturn, uphold or modify the ruling of local fire chiefs.
In the Whitman case, the state appeals board upheld the fire chief's ruling that required a sprinkler system at the roller skating rink.
However, Kavanaugh, the owners' attorney, said a similar business they operate in Fairhaven was not required to install a sprinkler system.
That is not an excuse for the Whitman building, said the town's attorney, Matthew Tobin, who asked the court Tuesday to revoke the occupancy permit and prohibit further use of the facility. The case is in Superior Court because the town sued Carousel's owners.
“The building is not in compliance,” he said.
The rink is housed in a building constructed in 1982. It does not have a fire alarm system and Kavanaugh said because it is “not a night club or a bar,” a sprinkler system should not be required either.
The Conways declined to comment on the issue, but Kavanaugh said the $100,000 cost of a sprinkler system is a burden for a small business.
As for the viability of a business operating with a 75 percent occupancy reduction, Kavanaugh said, “That remains to be seen.”
Elaine Allegrini can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.