Stateline Story

Nightclub Fire Prompts New Fireworks Laws

As Americans prepare to marvel at Fourth of July fireworks displays, a handful of states are considering laws to regulate indoor fireworks and pyrotechnics shows.

Prompted by the fire that killed 96 concert-goers at The Station nightclub in Warwick, R.I., in February, lawmakers in several states hope that new rules will prevent similar tragedies and strengthen the confusing patchwork of existing regulations, state fire officials and legislators said.

"It's one of those things that you really don't give a lot of thought to until you see accidents that have happened elsewhere," said Wisconsin state Sen. Neal Kedzie (R), who is sponsoring legislation in the Badger State to ban pyrotechnics inside any building with a capacity under 500 people.

The capacity at The Station nightclub was 300. "At the current time it's just a patchwork of restrictions throughout the entire state, or a lack of ordinances throughout the state. You can go from community to community and the laws will differ," Kedzie told Stateline.org of laws in Wisconsin. "It's very difficult to understand why anybody should be put in harm's way for the sake of entertainment. It just doesn't make sense."

Pyrotechnics set off by the 1980s heavy metal band Great White caused the deadly Rhode Island blaze. The nightclub became engulfed in flames just minutes after sparks from the fireworks display ignited foam near the stage. The fire shook the small New England state and prompted lawmakers, local officials and fire marshals across the country to take action.

If approved by the General Assembly, the Wisconsin law, which passed with bipartisan support in the state Senate June 24, would serve as a baseline for any facility that wanted to use pyrotechnics and would clearly outline the penalties for violating the law. A violation resulting in a fatality would be a class H felony, punishable by a fine of up to $10,000 or six years in prison. In Rhode Island, lawmakers are poised to pass a law to strengthen sprinkler requirements for buildings and structures where people gather, said Donald Bliss, the New Hampshire state fire marshal and president of the National Association of State Fire Marshals.

Rhode Island Gov. Donald Carcieri (R) is expected to sign the legislation if and when it's approved by the legislature, according to a July 2 report in the Providence Journal. A special legislative commission to study pyrotechnics laws issued a report June 5 with recommendations on pyrotechnics safety and use.

"(The fire) certainly raised a lot of concerns. In the Northeast there was quite a bit of discussion, and that's usually the case, the neighboring states are what are generally affected first by an event like that," Bliss told Stateline.org.

The New Hampshire Legislature is considering a proposal to license people who operate pyrotechnics and special effects shows, Bliss said.

Massachusetts and Maine imposed regulations on indoor pyrotechnics soon after the February fire. The Massachusetts Board of Fire Prevention and Regulation passed a regulation just 45 days after the incident requiring all fireworks operators in the state to obtain a license and pass a state examination, said Jennifer Meith, a spokeswoman for the state Department of Fire Services.

In Maine, Gov. John Baldacci (D) March 24 implemented an emergency rule on pyrotechnics use. Great White had played in a Bangor, Maine nightclub and used pyrotechnics in their show just two days before the Rhode Island fire, said Lee Umphrey, the governor's spokesman. Connecticut lawmakers recently passed a bill that would stiffen the penalties for safety violations and give local fire marshals greater authority to immediately shut down dangerous venues. The measure is awaiting approval from Gov. John Rowland (R), who is expected to sign the legislation by July 9, a press aide in the governor's office said.

In Indiana, state Sen. Vi Simpson (D) and other legislators introduced a Senate resolution to form an interim study committee to look at indoor pyrotechnics and nightclub safety during special summer meetings to begin late July. "Because something like this could be an act of terrorism, too, we'll be looking at it in that context also," said state Sen. Thomas Wyss (R), co-chair of the interim committee.

Fire officials said they aren't surprised the incident caught state lawmaker's attention and emotions.

"Historically speaking, fire codes and building codes see their most dramatic changes after a catastrophic event," Bliss of the National Association of State Fire Marshals said. "It's the dramatic events that kill a lot of people that result in typically our codes and standards changing."

Rules about indoor pyrotechnics typically differ from traditional fireworks laws. Fire officials said many states have adopted some part of the indoor pyrotechnics regulations set forth by the National Fire Protection Association, a fire safety advocacy group based in Quincy, Mass. The NFPA rules provide basic guidelines for public safety officials.

"This is not a Fourth of July issue as far as we're concerned. It's an all-year round issue," said Julie Heckman, executive director of the American Pyrotechnics Association, a trade organization based in Bethesda, Md., that represents 260 fireworks manufacturers, importers, distributors and retailers. In response to the Rhode Island fire, APA issued recommendations for safe indoor pyrotechnics use.

"We think that regulation is important. ... Rhode Island was such a tragic event, and clearly preventable, but we would certainly hate to see a rash of unnecessary regulation because an individual so blatantly misused the product," Heckman told Stateline.org.

Tags: Justice