Town officials seek clarity on sprinkler system rules for local venues in Athol 

  • Main Street in Athol STAFF PHOTO/PAUL FRANZ

For the Athol Daily News 
Published: 11/20/2022 6:52:55 PM
Modified: 11/20/2022 6:52:46 PM

ATHOL — Town Counsel John Barrett updated the Selectboard last week on the need for fire suppression sprinklers in local entertainment venues. The topic sparked a discussion about a memorandum that addressed the issue 15 years ago. 

“I had sent a letter out —  I’d say about three weeks ago — to several establishments that still had not installed sprinklers,” Barrett began. “This was a result of some concerns that had been expressed about the lack of sprinklers on certain establishments.

Bartlett, whose briefing came at the request of board chairman Alan Dodge, said there was a memorandum of understanding issued about 15 or 16 years ago between the Fire Department and entertainment venues. However, in his analysis, Bartlett said the memorandum was “simply re-statement of the exceptions in the law that allowed people — under what conditions or under what terms they could continue to operate without having sprinklers.”

Barrett then explained that the requirement for sprinklers is determined by the number of people in establishment, and what kind of establishment it is.

“If it’s a nightclub, and this is where the fire code and the building code sort of intersect and can be a little bit confusing,” Barrett explained. “The building code says a nightclub is an establishment that has low lighting, loud music, serves alcohol, and there are two or three other criteria. What causes problems, if you have low lighting and loud music, you’re not supposed to have more than 50 people in your establishment unless you have a sprinkler system.”

He said exceptions are made for function halls hosting an invitation-only event where the main purpose is the serving of a meal, such as a wedding reception, where the main focus of the event goes beyond just drinking and dancing. In that case, a sprinkler isn’t required even if the attendance is in excess of 100 people.

“I think the Fire Department and the fire marshal,” Barrett continued, “felt that some of these establishments (without sprinklers) were losing sight of the limitations that they have, if they’re going to operated without a sprinkler system. What my letter was was basically just a clarification of that memorandum of understanding. Any order the might issue subsequently would be from the Fire Department or the state fire marshal, to the extent that, if these establishments are operating in violation of the law. they will get an order that they’re in violation.”

Asked by Dodge if the law distinguishes between a private club and a nightclub, Barrett responded, “I don’t think there’s a general exemption for a private club just because they say, ‘We’re a private club.’”

Board Vice Chairwoman Rebecca Bialecki said that public safety is the priority, pointing out that deadly fires had occurred in a variety of venues throughout the country.

“Those were dance clubs and nightclubs,” said Dodge, “not in a private club.”

“But,” Bialecki responded, “if you have a dance party at the American Legion, for example, how is that different?”

Dodge argued that nightclubs have crowds and dancing several nights a week, whereas a club like the Legion may do so “once or twice a year.”

Board member Kala Fisher noted that some local establishments, after the memorandum of understanding was issued in 2006, installed pull stations rather than sprinkler systems. While not a fire suppression device, a pull station sets off alarms and flashing lights alerting people to get out of an establishment.

Board member Andy Sujdak, an officer with the 25 Sportsmans Club, was adamant in defending use of pull stations in place of sprinklers.

Referring to discussions that led to the 2006 memorandum, Sujdak said, “It was called a fire awareness system, as opposed to sprinklers. If those pull stations are pulled, if there’s any indication of fire, the juke box shuts off, the stage power shuts off, all the lights come on, there are flashers in the building that come on. No one will be caught unaware if there’s a fire in the places that followed that memorandum of understanding to the letter.

“They spent money. They invested money. It may sound like they did nothing, but that’s not what happened. They followed the directive given them by those departments. And there is a system in place in those buildings to make you aware that there’s a fire. You’re not going to get caught in the dark like the Station nightclub.”

Sujdak also noted that any club planning an event where the designated capacity will be exceeded must apply for a permit to do so.

“I’m not trying to say anyone ignored anything,” said Barrett. “I’m just saying that I was told was that the fire marshal and the Fire Department did not feel that people had gotten the message that this memorandum of understanding was a contract.”

The Selectboard instructed Town Manager Shaun Suhoski to organize a meeting to discuss the issue to include the town’s Fire Department, the state fire marshal, and the businesses/clubs who had received Barrett’s letter several weeks ago.

Greg Vine can be reached at 

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