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Night club safety

The following happened one week ago: Southern Brazil, the international news media report that at least 245 people were killed in a nightclub fire on Sunday after a band’s pyrotechnics show started a massive fire, and fleeing patrons were unable to find the emergency exits.

The town’s mayor told Reuters that the victims died of asphyxiation or from being trampled, and that there were possibly as many as 500 people inside the club when the fire broke out at about 2:30 a.m.

One survivor speaking to Reuters said: “We were only able to get out quickly because we were in a VIP area close to the door.”

Brazilian police stated that the fire started when a member of the band or its production team ignited a flare, which then set fire to the ceiling, and in seconds the entire club was ablaze.

Similar incidents including a nightclub fire in West Warwick, Rhode Island, US, that killed 100 in 2003, and a Buenos Aires nightclub blaze that killed approximately 200 in 2004. In both incidents, a band or members of the audience ignited fires that set the establishments on fire.

The DuPont Plaza Hotel and Casino fire in San Juan, Puerto Rico, New Year’s Eve, 1986, in which 97 people lost their lives was caused by arson. The January incident places Brazil’s safety, health, security standards and emergency response capabilities under extreme scrutiny; as Brazil prepares to host the 2014 World Cup soccer tournament and the 2016 Summer Olympics.

In 2011 and 2012, Barbados Today featured this particular type of disaster scenario due to the fact that in our opinion, and the opinion of fire officials and safety professionals, that it could and would happen in Barbados; and that the closest parallel to the Brazil fire in recent times was the tragic Campus Trendz fire.

During the 1970s, the Bearded Fig Tree, a popular night club located at Batts Rock was lost to fire. No lives were lost but it set the scenario for many “what if” questions for today’s mass crowd appeal parties and celebrations. What if the Brazil fire had occurred at the Cat’s Whiskers, Alexandra’s, Hippo Disco, Reggae Lounge, MacBride’s, or the now closed Jungles Cafe? What if the Brazil fire occurs at the Party Stand?

Are there any tested, proven evacuation scenarios for any of the popular night spots in Barbados? Does the gymnasium have an efficient system for mass crowd response? How easy will it be to evacuate patrons from the popular boardwalk jams in Bridgetown?

Can the temporary fences erected at the boardwalk be easily moved to facilitate evacuation, considering that the Jolly Roger occupies one side of the boardwalk? Will patrons scramble over the boat and jump into the Careenage if the fences cannot be moved? What are the parameters that determine overcrowding at indoor mass crowd events? And are they enforced?

Retail business houses in Bridgetown and in the malls have their own loosely developed guidelines for overcrowding by shoppers, but these guidelines have been established as a security measure for mitigating shoplifting. However, even in this scenario, these loosely developed guidelines do not dictate the efficiency of response to a “zero warning” event, like an explosion followed by total electrical failure engulfing the place in darkness, or a rapidly spreading fire during peak business hours.

Discussions with businesses and responders all lead to one unavoidable fact, and that is that the level of readiness for a response to a Brazilian scenario in Barbados has not been thoroughly thought through.

The 2005 Safety and Health at Work Act now proclaimed on January 1 this year, demands that evacuation plans be written, tested and be available for review by the authorities. These plans must be based on the type of business and the anticipated volume of customers or patrons. It also requires that the evacuation plans be based on realistic scenarios and tested under actual working conditions expected to be faced by personnel and customers.

No night time venue currently tests their emergency plans at night. The reasoning behind this rationale is still to be determined, as the excuses offered contravenes the regulations in the SHaW act. But this requirement of the law does not change the current behaviour of some operations that still insist on squeezing as many as possible into whatever venue selected for the event. This behaviour also extends to the vehicle parking arrangements for the event.

At most nighttime events, vehicles can be seen scattered all across sidewalks, blocking hydrants, side streets and in some cases, primary roads and highways. This kind of behaviour makes it difficult for law enforcement to police the traffic regulations of this country. Ambulance workers responding to events have complained of the difficulty of accessing the venue due to the inconsiderate parking by some patrons, and in some cases the arrogance of others in their refusal to move their cars.

During many of these events, there is a constant call by organisers requesting drivers to move their vehicles due to many reasons, most of which have nothing to do with safety, security and health considerations, but are in fact as a result of other patrons being blocked in.

At peak hours in St. Lawrence Gap, this kind of inconsiderate parking further exacerbates the safety and response of responders, who must tread very carefully through a double parking maze that greets them on both sides of the street. This coupled with the fact that half of the St. Lawrence Gap has been designated as a “one way road”, and its deliberate narrowing from the Reggae Lounge to the Dover Playing field, further complicates access to the scene.

Responders have questioned the safety aspects of this road design against the background of immediate unrestricted access to an incident, but have not yet received an answer that allays their fears of a “What if” ever occurring.

The Brazilian scenario also asks the question as to why there are locked or blocked emergency exits at many of these event venues. Many of the venues examined in which overcrowding has been witnessed, revealed locked doors, which was rationalised as eliminating such security concern as an unauthorised entrance. Tables and chairs are located either very near the exit door, or the door is used as a back wall for additional seating. Emergency exits are poorly lighted. Some venues do not even have an emergency exit that facilitates evacuation to an open space away from the venue, but are some of the most popular mass venues in the country.

Indoor venues carry a greater requirement for emergency planning than an outdoor venue. The issue of fire response and evacuating patrons from smoke filled rooms, if not carefully executed and planned for, will precipitate a higher number of injuries, and possible more deaths, than the actual fire itself.

No hazards have yet impacted an indoor event. Comprehensive planning in this area is sorely lacking. Now, due to the passage of the SHaW Act, venue managers and event promoters will be required to introduce comprehensive safety and security systems that are based on the safety of the patron and not their unauthorised entrance.

We are going to pursue this subject. In the interim, let us hope that event planners will reach out to the experts and authorities in this field for competent guidance before the Brazilian fire disaster occurs one night in Barbados.

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