R.I. Fire Marshal Struggles to Meet Tough Code

September 29, 2004

Rhode Island Fire Marshal Irving Owens’ office has struggled with deadlines for stringent fire-safety measures approved after a deadly West Warwick nightclub fire.

Owens’ five-year term ran out in July and one of his employees, Deputy Marshal Anthony Marsella, wants Owens’ job. Gov. Don Carcieri says he hasn’t decided yet whether to reappoint Owens.

Among changes approved last year but not yet implemented are a fire code ticketing system and spot safety checks of places of assembly.

Owens says his office is still working on both requirements. He blames delays on limited manpower and the many changes in the fire code since the blaze, which claimed 100 lives.

“Would I like to see it done quicker? Yeah,” Owens told The Providence Sunday Journal. “But we went through a process. We’ve had a tremendous amount of law passed. We’ve had a limited amount of people.”

Despite delays, Owens believes Rhode Island is safer now than before The Station fire. He has hired six new inspectors. Inspectors statewide have had training classes on enforcing the state’s new fire code. The new law eliminated outdated safety exemptions for older buildings.

“It’s my opinion that the state is safer,” Owens said. “I can’t say by what degree, but I have never seen so many people so cognizant of fire safety. We need to continue that. Like a lot of things, people after a while put it aside.”

Carcieri said he thinks Owens has “a lot on his plate right now. In the aftermath of the fire, and all of that, I think that the fire marshal did a good job in reacting to that and what had to be done.

“We’re in a different phase now,” Carcieri said. “We’ve got a whole new set of regulations. We’ve added staff (in the marshal’s office), and we’re trying to support that effort, but a lot has to be done. I haven’t sat down to review it.”

The governor is concerned about the lack of information on the number of Rhode Island clubs that need sprinklers, and the progress toward compliance. “I don’t know as we sit here how many have started.”

Carcieri has asked Owens’ office to collect information from cities and towns on sprinklers and nightclubs, including how many places have already installed sprinklers.

The largest places of assembly are required to have sprinklers by July, 2005.

Copyright 2004 Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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