Businesses Must Obey Fire Code to Avoid Hefty Fines or Jail Time

By: Estephany Escobar Email
By: Estephany Escobar Email

According to CNN reports, the club in Brazil was at double its capacity and security guards blocked the doors.

In Virginia, those two practices are illegal and can lead to hefty fines or jail time.

Blue Nile Manager Bethel Arefaine said employees have to make sure they are complying with the fire code.

Under the Virginia Fire code, upstairs at the restaurant, Blue Nile has a capacity of 93 people and downstairs, in the club area, the capacity is 190 people.

Arefaine said they have at least four people checking the capacity from the inside and from the outside.

"We have bouncers keeping track of how many people come in and how many people leave," Arefaine said.

Harrisonburg Fire Chief Larry Shifflett said capacity depends on the size of a business and if people are standing or sitting.

"If there's an emergency, they're not going to be able to get to the exits," Shifflett said. "Whether is one exit or whether it's a dozen exits. If they're in packed like sardines, they're not going to be able to move to the exits."

At Blue Nile, Arefaine said there are three exits. She said the staff knows the procedure to follow in case of an emergency.

She said employees will turn on the lights and announce over the speaker that people must use an exit.

"There could be 200 people in one space, there could be 50 people in one space. if you're not directing the flow of people, there could be panic and there can still be problems," Arefaine said.

Shifflett said to avoid problems, owners should not block any aisles and the doors must be unlocked.

He said the fire department usually patrols bars and clubs to check for violations, including blocking aisles, locking doors and overcrowding.

According to Shifflett, stricter measures for businesses come from fires like the one at a club in Rhode Island in 2003.

"People have died in these nightclubs and you find bodies stocked up at the exits and that's what happens. They just get packed in there so tight that the people can't move," Shifflett said.

When owners don't comply, Shifflett said, the fire department will issue them a warning, if it's a small violation.

However, if it's a larger violation, the fire department can take the owners to court.

He said this has happened before in Harrisonburg.

"Some of these people have been close to serving jail time for not complying on a continuous basis," he said.

For Arefaine, it's her responsibility to run a business while keeping customers safe.

"We also know that to a certain extent, we are responsible for them when they're here," Arefaine said.

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