I-Team: Providence nightclub inspections missing, out of date

NBC 10's I-Team has learned that many Providence bars and nightclubs do not have current fire inspections on file.

Hundreds of people pack the city's nightclubs every weekend, ready to dance, drink and party.

But 10years ago, on Feb. 20, 2003, Rhode Island saw a chilling example of what can go wrong. The Station nightclub fire killed 100 people in West Warwick and injured 200 others.

Just last month, there was a frightening reminder in Brazil. More than 200 people were killed when pyrotechnics sparked a fire at an overcrowded club. Inside, there were no sprinklers and not enough exits.

"We saw it very close here just 10 years ago, the loss of 100 lives," said Providence Public Safety Commissioner Steven Pare. "It's horrific."

Because of that horror, Rhode Island law was changed after the Station fire to require a full inspection of every club, every year. But NBC 10 discovered many Providence nightclubs and bars went years without any record of full inspections.

The I-Team spent months reviewing records for 60 Providence clubs and bars going back 10 years. The results show that most inspections are from 2005 or earlier, more than seven years ago.

Pare admits club and bar inspections are years out of date.

"Although we go in and we sporadically inspect nightclubs, we haven't done a full inspection of nightclubs on a regular basis," he said.

Some of the problems found in those old inspection reports are disturbing. Records show eight nightclubs had no fire sprinklers, despite a state law requiring them. But there's no record of anyone going back to follow up.

NBC 10's Katie Davis: "Do we know if all those clubs have sprinklers today?"
Pare: "I don't know. We should know. We will know in 2013, because we'll have full inspections on those clubs."

Attorney Mike St. Pierre represented 35 families impacted by the Station fire, including nine whose loved ones were killed. The I-Team showed him inspection records from Providence.

"We're going back to the same position that West Warwick was in 2000, 2001, 2002, the years just before this fire in 2003," St. Pierre said.

St. Pierre said the documents show a disturbing pattern.

"When they noted violations, which is what you're supposed to do, there was no follow-up," he said. "And if they're not doing their job, they're not protecting the public."

Since 2008, city records show fire inspectors have made surprise visits to Providence clubs on a regular basis. The visits, known as Operational Reviews, are conducted when clubs open, usually after midnight. Inspectors check to make sure clubs aren't over capacity, and sometimes point out code violations as well.

But the state Fire Marshal told NBC 10 those visits don't replace the legal requirement to do a full inspection when clubs are empty.

The I-Team found more problems with the one-page reports from the Operational Reviews, known as "nightclub surveys." Some are written on old forms, using letterhead from the former mayor and fire chief. Most of the 2012 reports aren't signed by anyone.

"No one's signing off on it. There's no substance to it," St. Pierre said. "That indicates to me that really, nothing is being done. That's a tragedy waiting to happen."

Other 2012 surveys reveal potentially dangerous violations, with no follow up.

At one club, inspectors found clogged fire devices. At another, stairwells were blocked with storage. At a third location, a fire alarm was ripped open and silenced. But there's no record of inspectors returning to the clubs to make sure the problems were fixed.

"Those are problematic and they're dangerous. I agree," Pare said.

Pare said part of the problem is the city's outdated and haphazard record keeping system. NBC 10 found inspection reports we requested stored in a cardboard box on the floor. Other records are stored in filing cabinet drawers, with no computerized system to store or track inspections.

"There's no excuse. We didn't have the leadership. We didn't have the infrastructure. We're building that," Pare said.

The city is working on a new electronic records system, and Pare said full inspections of nightclubs and bars will restart this year.