TO:                  Mayor and Town Council


FROM:            W. Calvin Horton, Town Manager

Ralph D. Karpinos, Town Attorney


SUBJECT:       Public Hearing on Potential Request for Legislation that Would Authorize the Town to Require Installation of Sprinkler Systems in Bars, Restaurants and Similar Establishments


DATE:             March 24, 2003



The purpose of tonight’s hearing is to receive public comment on a potential request for legislation that would authorize the Town to require installation of fire sprinkler system in bars, restaurants and similar public assembly occupancies that seat more than 50 persons and serve alcohol.


We recommend that the Council adopt the attached resolution requesting the proposed legislation.




The Council conducted a public hearing on March 3, 2003 to receive comments from citizens about potential legislation requests.  One new item, not advertised prior to the hearing, was introduced by the Manager and the Fire Chief in response to recent nightclub incidents in Rhode Island and Chicago that resulted in a large number of deaths.


The Manager recommended that the new proposal be considered at a public hearing on March 24, so that interested citizens would have an opportunity to comment.  This is consistent with the Legislative Delegation’s desire to have legislative request items commented on locally.  The Council scheduled this public forum to enable that process.


The General Assembly convened this year on January 29.  The deadline for submittal of local bills to Legislative Bill drafting is March 12 for the N.C. Senate and March 19 for the N.C. House.  We understand that the Orange County Delegation would be able to add the proposed legislation to a “blank bill” if desired by the Council and agreed to by the Delegation.    




A fast moving fire in a West Warwick, Rhode Island nightclub on February 20 resulted in the deaths of 93 persons.  The fire occurred during a live music performance and, although the club is reported to have sufficient exits and an alarm system, crowd panic reduced the opportunities for escape.  There was no fire sprinkler system in the club.  Fire officials in Rhode Island report that a sprinkler system active in the club most likely would have resulted in no deaths.  That incident combined with our success in Chapel Hill at reducing fire risk in fraternities and sororities with fire sprinkler requirements prompted this recommendation.


The proposed legislation would require restaurants, clubs, bars and similar places of public assembly that serve alcohol, with an occupancy of more than 50 people, to install and maintain automatic fire sprinkler systems.   The life saving record of fire sprinkler systems is without peer. There has never been a multiple-loss-of-life fire in a fully and properly operating sprinklered building in the United States. We have first hand experience with the effectiveness of these systems in Chapel Hill. Since the Council enacted a retroactive fire sprinkler requirement in fraternity and sorority housing in 1996 we have had several small fires that were easily controlled by the operating sprinkler systems and no major fires.


The current state fire code defines public assembly Group A-2 as “Assembly uses intended for food and/or drink consumption including but not limited to: Banquet Halls, Night Clubs, Restaurants, Taverns and Bars.” Because of the potential hazards posed by these types of occupancies and previous incidents of overcrowding violations in these kinds of establishments, it is recommended that we seek legislation authorizing the Town of Chapel Hill to enact ordinances to require the installation of sprinklers in existing and new facilities.  If legislation is enacted, we anticipate proposing ordinances that would require the following:


Ø      Any new Group A-2 occupancy to be established with a rated occupancy load exceeding 50 persons and serving alcohol must have an approved NFPA 13 fire sprinkler system installed prior to issuance of certificate of occupancy.


Ø      Any existing Group A-2 occupancy with a rated occupancy load exceeding 50 persons and serving alcohol must be retrofitted within 5 years of the enactment of the requiring ordinance. At the end of the 5 year period any Group A-2 occupancy without an approved sprinkler system will lose their certificate of occupancy.


Ø      Since the definition wording of Group A-2 includes the words “but not limited to” it is suggested that for the purposes of this ordinance “dance halls, pool and billiard parlors and music clubs” should be included in the definition.


This level of fire protection would significantly reduce the threat of a fire tragedy in the regulated establishments.  Based on our most recent survey of occupancies as defined above, there are 45 such occupancies in Chapel Hill (see attachment #1) that have rated capacities above 50 persons and 56 such occupancies that have rated capacities above 100 persons.


The potential benefits of such an ordinance would include:


Ø      A high level of fire and life safety in the regulated establishments.


Ø      Protection of neighboring business from exposure to a large or fast moving fire.


Ø      Increased safety for firefighters who would not have to perform rescues or make dangerous firefighting entries to control a threatening fire.


Potential costs of a fire sprinkler ordinance would include:


Ø      Costs incurred by existing Chapel Hill businesses to install the systems.  Current industry estimates for fire sprinkler installations are $1.50 to $3.00 a square foot for new construction and $2.50 to $4.00 a square foot for retrofit.  There would be additional costs for building modification, water line extensions, and related construction.


Ø      Costs incurred by disruption of businesses while sprinkler systems are being installed.


Ø      Some property owners could decide to change to occupancy of their property in order to avoid installation of sprinkler systems, forcing business changes.


An option for the Council to consider would be to raise the proposed threshold of the occupancy requirement to capacities of more than 100 persons or some other threshold, thus exempting smaller occupancies.


Notice of tonight’s Public Hearing was advertised in The Chapel Hill News on Sunday, March 23, 2003 and was posted on the Town’s web site on Monday, March 17, 2003.




The Manager recommends adoption of the attached resolution requesting the Legislative delegation to seek passage of the proposed legislation authorizing Chapel Hill to establish requirements for fire sprinklers in the defined occupancies.




1.      A list of current Chapel Hill occupancies that fall under these affected occupancy classifications (p. 5)

2.      March 2, 2003 memo in response to the Manager’s request in consideration of this item (p. 9)

3.      Copy of legislation passed in 1996 authorizing the Town to require sprinklers to be installed in fraternity and sorority houses (p. 10)

4.      Copy of proposed authorizing bill authored by the Town Attorney (p. 11)





WHEREAS, the Council of the Town of Chapel Hill held a public hearing on March 24, 2003, at 7:00 p.m. in the Council Chambers of Town Hall on a proposed item for inclusion in the Town’s legislative program for the 2003 Long Session of the North Carolina General Assembly; and


WHEREAS, the Council desires to take steps to prevent a loss of life by fire in a club, bar or other similar types of public assembly such as occurred February 20, 2003 in Rhode Island;


NOW, THEREFORE, BE IT RESOLVED by the Council of the Town of Chapel Hill that the Council hereby adds the following to its Legislative Program for consideration by the General Assembly in the upcoming Long Session:  


* A bill authorizing the Town of Chapel Hill to require by ordinance fire sprinklers in certain public assembly occupancies that are licensed to serve alcoholic beverages with an authorized capacity in excess of ___ persons, including requirements that sprinklers be installed in existing facilities within a reasonable period of time following the effective date of such ordinance. 


This the 24th day of March, 2003.