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Our Opinion: Sprinklers in nightclubs are a necessity

Here’s an alarming statistic that ought to persuade city Commissioner Dan Saltzman he’s on the right track when it comes to installing sprinkler systems in nightclubs:

As many as 60 Portland nightclubs have capacities of more than 100 people, but no sprinklers.

That statistic means there are up to 60 clubs or venues in Portland harboring the potential for disaster. People only have to recall the 2003 Station nightclub fire in Rhode Island that killed 100 patrons, or the Brazil nightclub fire in January that killed 200, to visualize the possible danger.

In response to a June 13 Portland Tribune investigation into this topic, Saltzman intends to propose a City Council resolution requiring sprinklers at all nightclubs, discos, dance halls and indoor festival sites where more than 100 people gather. Portland trails behind many other cities, including Seattle, that instituted such regulations after the Station nightclub blaze.

The sheer number of people placed at risk provides ample motivation for Portland to move swiftly to adopt a sprinkler requirement, but another number — $20,000 or more — is likely to slow down the process. That’s the estimated cost of installing a sprinkler system in each club — and by some accounts, that estimate is at the low end of the price range.

It’s easy to understand why nightclub owners resist this expense. Yet, when you consider the potential liability of a catastrophic fire, the cost of a sprinkler

system would appear to be a wise investment.

The city also has the ability to help nightclubs absorb the cost. Like other cities, Portland can — and should — give nightclubs time to comply. In Seattle, clubs were allowed up to 18 months. Most nightclubs there installed the sprinklers, but some closed their doors rather than spend the money.

Portland also could offer tax incentives, as some cities have done, and it can consider other options as it discusses this issue with the businesses affected.

What Portland officials cannot do is remain complacent about the matter of fire safety in nightclubs — particularly clubs located in historic buildings. The acute dangers inherent in those types of structures were highlighted in previous Tribune articles, in which outside experts and the city’s own fire inspector warned of the potential for catastrophe.

Veteran Commissioner Saltzman, who assumed responsibility for Portland Fire & Rescue in June, should press ahead with his proposed resolution. The possibility of a disastrous fire may be relatively remote. However, as Saltzman has noted, if such a fire did occur, no one should have to live with the knowledge that he or she could have done something to prevent it.