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Safe clubs, safe crowds

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City Newspaper wasn't at the recent meeting between public officials and concerned nightclub owners. And most nightclub owners we followed up with wouldn't speak on the record. Even the one elected official we've spoken with about the meeting preferred anonymity.

            But the elected official said the "big issue" tackled at the meeting was the city's aggressive efforts to mobilize fire-safety inspection units to conduct random "license premises checks."

            In response to the deadly February 20 fire in a Rhode Island nightclub, Rochester's fire department has stepped up its presence in local bars. This has been a source of comfort for some club owners. To others, it's simply a hassle. But, asks the elected official we spoke with, "How can you argue with the Fire Marshall making sure places are safe?"

            Fire officials maintained their increased details in local clubs for about a month after the Rhode Island fire, and "caught some legitimate things which the owners have rectified," says the elected official.

            During their visits, inspectors checked operating licenses, exit access, and overall building safety. But their "big issue," says Rochester Fire Department Captain Dan McBride, is making sure the clubs don't exceed occupancy limits.

            The elected official breaks it down this way: "They've [fire inspectors] been coming out to do premises checks when the places are hoppin'. And some of the club owners feel that if they're checking licenses, they can come at 3 or 4 in the afternoon." They'd rather the inspections occur when it's not so busy.

            But Milestones owner Mike O'Leary, the only club owner willing to speak on the record, understands the fire department's approach.

            "If you're going to come in and check occupancy, when are you going to do it? At 10 in the morning?"

            According to McBride, the random visits are a necessary response to a frequently random industry. For example: Deliveries will be left in hallways that were previously clear. A club moves furniture for a dance floor and blocks an exit. Happy-hour bands set up in clubs that don't have bandstands, and inadvertently obstruct exits.

            "After Rhode Island, a number of clubs contacted us because they were interested in getting the message out that their places were safe relative to the building," McBride says.

            Nobody seems to argue with this. But occupancy is another issue, and some club owners stress the realities of their business. Even when risking a fine.

            "I'm more conscious of being caught than actually going over my capacity," says one owner.

            "If we all had to stick to our occupancy every night," says another club owner, "we'd be out of business."

            McBride doesn't see it that way.

            "There's been a big push in recent years to develop a nightlife here," he says. "All you need are a couple of bad situations and you're killing a big industry in the city."

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