February 20th will mark a decade since the tragic
2003 Station Nightclub fire that claimed one hundred lives in Warwick, Rhode Island. In the time since, Rhode Island has adopted some of the strictest fire codes in the United States. In fact, a news article authored by the Associated Press’s Michelle R. Smith and carried by many newspapers in the United States, reports that Rhode Island now has a 400-page book of state-specific rules and regulations designed to prevent this type of tragedy from happening again. One of the changes the state has made is to more thoroughly train fire inspectors to spot code infractions. Unfortunately, before the 2003 fire, a local fire inspector failed to note that flammable foam insulation was being used to help soundproof the Station Nightclub building, and that flammable foam erupted in flames which spread throughout the building.
In order to comply with the newer Rhode Island codes, owners of public venues have also taken steps like installing sprinkler systems, using fire proof materials in their buildings, installing new doorways and lighting and developing emergency plans and training for management personnel. All of these steps are admirable – Rhode Island has seemingly learned from the tragedy.
Sadly, others have not learned from the Rhode Island tragedy. Following the Station Nightclub fire, similar accidents with similar consequences occurred in Argentina, China, Thailand and Russia. Just last month in Santa Maria, Brazil, over 230 people died in a nightclub fire that is tragically similar to that of the Station Nightclub. We won’t know the full details of the investigation for quite some time, but some parallels can already be seen: the Kiss Nightclub in Brazil had insufficient exits, a flare or some sort of incendiary device ignited flammable sound proofing foam and most of the victims of the fire died due to inhalation of toxic gases from the fire.
This brings me to my real point. People seem to forget, fairly quickly, incidents like the Station Nightclub fire, particularly when they weren’t personally affected by them.
Here in the United States, we have one of the lowest rates of death per capita due to fires in the entire world. One reason for that is a strict set of codes and rules that are designed to make the places in which we live, work and congregate as safe as they can be. These rules address the flammability of construction materials, the installation and maintenance of smoke and carbon monoxide alarms, escape exits, fire suppression and a host of technologies designed to either prevent fires or provide sufficient time to escape buildings to help prevent loss of life.
Now it appears as though some have grown complacent due to this lower (but not non-existent) death rate in the United States. I just read an article published today in the San Francisco Chronicle where a San Francisco Bay Area lawmaker said she plans to introduce a bill in the California Legislature that would reduce flame retardants in foam insulation installed anywhere in California. According to the article, this action was prompted by a recent paper that makes the outrageous claim that flame retardants used in insulation foam don’t make the foam any safer. The San Francisco Chronicle states that flame retardants that have “the potential to harm our health and environment,” are leaching through our walls. The article fails to cite the source of that claim. The article also fails to mention several other points: (1) these flame retardants have been used effectively for many years to make insulating foam more fire safe, (2) governments throughout the world have approved the use of these flame retardants in this application and (3) the San Francisco Chronicle published exactly one week earlier an article entitled, “Decade after deadly RI fire, lessons for Brazil.”
This says two things to me: (1) Reporters for the San Francisco Chronicle aren’t reading their own newspaper, and, (2) People tend not to learn from tragedy when they are not personally affected. For my part, I’d rather not repeat the mistakes of the past by rolling back or undermining fire safety codes that help keep us safe from a risk we know is real. Because next time, it may be me or it may be my family who is affected. I’m not willing to take that chance.