Despite objections from the city's fire chief and members of the Chattanooga Firefighters Association, City Council members overwhelmingly voted to give final approval to an amendment to an ordinance requiring sprinkler systems to be installed in new buildings.
The group approved the amendment in an 8-1 vote. Casting the lone no vote was Councilwoman Carol Berz.
As previously written, the ordinance would have applied to already-existing bars and nightclubs. Under the change, which was put forward by Councilman Chris Anderson, established businesses will not be obligated to install sprinkler systems unless they planned on using pyrotechnics or already had a record of fire code violations for items such as locked fire exits or use of pyrotechnics that had not been properly permitted.
Several business owners, including representatives from Track 29 and the Comedy Catch, returned to City Hall for the second straight week to request members approve the change. The owners said that costs for installing new sprinkler systems would be a blow to business and potentially cause some to close their doors for good.
Still, several firefighters said the ordinance as written did not need changing.
Former Fire Chief Randy Parker said that firefighters did not want to respond to a potentially catastrophic fire with a large loss of life, similar to past club fires in other states.
"Most of us have been involved in fatal fires where we've had to pull people from buildings," Parker said in brief remarks. "We don't want to see that happen again."
Rick Boatwright, a member of the Chattanooga Firefighters Association, said the loss for local businesses could potentially be greater in the event of a deadly fire.
"Can you afford to not install the sprinklers?" he asked.
Mike Alfano, who owns the Comedy Catch, said the potential for a massive fire in a bar or nightclub was minimal, adding that previously cited events like a 2003 bar fire in Rhode Island that killed 100 people was the result of a "perfect storm" of mistakes and oversights.
"There's never been a fire death in a club or restaurant in Tennessee, ever," Alfano said. "I will have to change what I do or close … I can't afford to make these changes."
Before voting on the final reading of the ordinance change, Fire Chief Lamar Flint told the group both he and the fire marshal preferred the ordinance remain as written.
Following the group's vote, Anderson said he thought council members had made the right decision.
"I have tremendous respect for the fire chief and the firefighters; they have a noble profession," Anderson said. "Their job is one thing—to protect and save lives at any cost. The job of the council is to balance the likelihood of a very rare occurrence of a fire in a nightclub with the very real fact that this ordinance would cause many people to go out of business and for families to suffer. I think we chose correctly."
In other news, the council voted to accept a payment-in-lieu-of-taxes (PILOT) agreement for WNA American Plastic Industries Inc., a local thermo-molded plastic cup, plate and bowl manufacturer that plans to expand by adding a $6 million production line and hiring 53 new workers. It was the first PILOT approved by the council since they took office in April and came after an afternoon educational session on PILOTs.
Councilman Ken Smith cast the sole no vote against accepting the agreement with the company.
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