Make L.A. Clubs Safer in Fires

Gene La Pietra is the former president of the California Business & Tavern Guild and the owner of Circus Disco and Arena nightclubs.

The dance club tragedies in Chicago and West Warwick, R.I., have brought to the nation's attention the public safety aspects of operating a public venue for entertainment.

More than 115 people were killed and many more injured -- physically and psychologically -- in the space of a week. As a Los Angeles club owner for 30 years and a Rhode Island native, my heart is hurting for the victims' families because preventive actions could have saved so many from suffocation, trampling and burns.

Even though nightclub owners work closely with law enforcement, building and safety officials and fire departments to maintain regulatory compliance with safety rules, legal loopholes remain on the books that allow for potentially similar disasters here in Los Angeles.

The obstacles to the necessary reforms are legislative and expensive but, compared with the preservation of human life, well worth the expense of time and money to make these venues safe for our citizens and visitors.

The major reform that has to occur in Los Angeles is the elimination of the legislative "grandfather clause" that allows older buildings and dance clubs to operate without water sprinklers.

Some of the most popular clubs in the city do not have sprinkler systems, and they do not make that fact known to their patrons.

Surely in these times patrons should not only know that the venue has earned an "A" from food inspectors but they should also be told whether each dance venue makes the grade in terms of public safety.

Grandfather clauses can no longer be an excuse to operate unsafe venues.

It is time for Los Angeles to adopt a set of rules that creates the highest level of safety for every dance venue, regardless of size.

Among the reforms that should be considered are:

* Sprinklers: Eliminate grandfather clauses and require all dance clubs to install sprinklers in the interior and exterior of the venue.

* Doors: Ban swinging and hinged doors in favor of "roll-up" doors that are wider, always open during business hours and provide easier egress during emergencies.

* Exit signs: Signs now displayed over exits are too small and can be obscured by smoke. Signs should be legally required to be larger and placed over the exit and on the floor at the exit.

* Exit lighting: There should be illumination on the floor, similar to that in passenger jets, leading to the exit.

* Surveillance cameras: State-of-the-art camera surveillance should be required inside and outside the facility for use with a public address system in order to guide panicked patrons to the proper exits.

These requirements are necessary in our city. Our city leaders are empowered to implement these and other measures to prevent the loss of life in regulated establishments, such as dance clubs.

Let us not wait for another disaster before we find the political will to institute these lifesaving policies.

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