In the aftermath of a nightclub fire that killed 191 and injured more than 700 in Buenos Aires on 30 December, the Cayman Islands Fire Service and the Liquor Licensing Board are urging nightclub and restaurant owners to be diligent in obeying the fire codes at their establishments.
Mitchell Welds, Chairman of the Liquor Licensing Board of Grand Cayman, said he would not hesitate to take action if any licensees were found in contravention of the fire regulations.
‘Safety will always come first under my watch,’ he said. ‘Any licensee that is not in compliance with safety requirements runs the risk of losing his or her licence.
Mr. Welds said special attention is paid to nightclubs, primarily because of the large crowds they attract.
‘The majority of the patrons that frequent the nightclubs in Grand Cayman are between the ages of 18 and 25,’ he said. ‘These young people are the future of the Cayman Islands and they must be able to socialize in a safe environment.’
Although Cayman’s nightclubs have generally been good in complying with fire regulations, Mr. Welds says that there have been some infractions in the past that have worried him, including overcrowding, blocked exits, and locked exit doors.
Before the Liquor Licensing Board will renew a license, it requires an inspection to make sure the establishment is compliant with fire regulations such as having its exits clearly identified, fire extinguishers readily available, and the proper flame retardant materials installed. .
Sometimes, however, business owners circumvent the law with procedural infractions afterwards. In the Buenos Aires nightclub fire, for example, the establishment was overcrowded by at least twice the legal limit, and doors were locked to prevent people from getting into the concert without paying.
Mr. Welds said the Liquor Licensing Board works closely with the Fire Services in ensuring establishments are in compliance with fire safety regulations. ‘Emergency exits are frequently examined, and occupant capacity is always under constant review.’
Doorly McLaughlin of the Cayman Islands Fire Services confirmed that he carries out spot checks on nightclubs to make sure they are compliant. Sometimes he sends on-duty officers to conduct the random checks, and other times he conducts them undercover himself.
Cayman’s fire prevention officer for 27 years now, Mr. McLaughlin said he gets tips about infractions, sometimes from the Liquor Licensing Board, and sometimes from the public.
‘I have three major concerns,’ he said. ‘Overcrowding, means of egress and what goes on inside the nightclub.’
Mr. McLaughlin explained that nightclub capacity limits are set by law and are calculated by factors in the building code dealing with both square footage and the number of exits.
‘These are factors that should be taken into consideration in the planning stage, and they usually are,’ he said. ‘Where we sometimes run into trouble is with an existing building that is being converted into a nightclub.’
As for what goes on in a nightclub, Mr. McLaughlin said he makes no apologies for erring on the side of caution when it comes to pyrotechnics and other fire effects inside of nightclubs, and he often denies requests for such things.
‘If I don’t feel comfortable with it, I won’t allow it,’ he said.
Mr. McLaughlin said fire prevention laws are adequate here in the Cayman Islands, but thinks there is always room for improvement.
‘Personally, I’d like to see buildings incorporate more fire protection systems,’ he said, noting that a potentially disastrous fire at the Westin Resort less than two months after it opened was extinguished by one sprinkler head.
In addition, Mr. McLaughlin said patrons of nightclubs must also do their part to ensure fire safety. He told the story of one frustrated nightclub owner who had installed an elaborate fire alarm system that had both visual and audible elements.
When the alarm was triggered, it shut off the music, turned on the house lights, and transferred the sound of the alarm through the speaker system.
‘The owner told me that when the alarm went off one time, the people didn’t leave; they just started dancing to the beat of the fire alarm.’