In February, 2003, a nightclub fire in West Warwick, R.I., killed 96 people and injured more than 150 others when a pyrotechnics display at the beginning of a set by metal band Great White set the building ablaze. Images of The Stanton going up in flames were captured by television crews who already happened to be at the scene, and showed the chaotic crush of trapped concertgoers inside, unable to reach any other exit but the front door. In the aftermath, authorities called for greater enforcement of fire codes and more education on how similar establishments across the country could prevent such a tragedy.
“That’s a lot of people that shouldn’t have died,” says Randy Okon, fire inspector for the Missoula Fire Department, remembering the West Warwick incident. “We see those types of instances all around the country, and thankfully we haven’t had that in our town. But that’s what we work to protect against.”
Lately, Okon and the MFD have been working harder than usual to protect and educate the public, particularly when it comes to the local music scene. In just the last six months, the MFD has been involved with the March closing of the music venue and art space known as Area 5 in a stretch of warehouses along South 1st Street, shutting down MARS in the alley behind Liquid Planet in July, ending shows at a residence known as The Funny Tummy House earlier this month, and inspecting the Boys and Girls Club after mistakenly suspecting Higgins Hall was being inappropriately used to host a concert. Of the above venues, only the Boys and Girls Club is still hosting events after successfully working with MFD to correct minor code issues.
“This is a relatively recent occurrence because we haven’t really been aware of a problem before,” says Fire Marshal Bob Rajala, a 19-year veteran of the MFD. “Most people who hold concerts are either established or…[if it’s a one-time show] the organizers request an inspection and we go and tell that person what they need to do to make it safe. If this had happened 10 years ago, had we been aware of these types of shows then, we would’ve gotten involved. But we just became aware of it recently.”
The first example occurred in March when neighbors near Area 5 complained to the Missoula Police Department of noise and crowds during a show. The police report prompted MFD to inspect the building and it was quickly deemed inappropriate for what Okon calls “an assembly occupancy.”
“The building wasn’t built, wasn’t designed, wasn’t capable of providing for the safety of those inside for those types of events,” says Okon, noting specifically the lack of fire exits.
Following the Area 5 closure, the MFD shut down MARS for similar reasons. (Victor Sheely-Morales, the proprietor of Area 5 and MARS, is out of town and unavailable for comment. He has agreed to remain closed until appropriate renovations are made at MARS, according to Okon.) Now, the MFD regularly checks flyers and advertisements posted around town to monitor the local concert scene. In particular, the department is checking for shows that don’t appear to be hosted at suitable venues, including private residences or city buildings not up to current fire code.
“We’ve started looking,” says Rajala. “We thought, well, this isn’t that hard to find, let’s just go look on the telephone poles where the listings are. So we’ve started following up from there.”
The MFD’s recent efforts have run afoul of local promoters and their ongoing battle to find any available space to host smaller concerts and all-ages shows. House parties, for instance, are a long-standing tradition in the local music scene and have been increasingly relied upon as a cheap way to showcase touring DIY bands or give locals a chance to practice their chops.
“I book a lot of smaller bands that sometimes only draw 20 people,” says Tyson Ballew, a frequent promoter around town and one resident of The Funny Tummy House. “I need smaller places that are intimate and don’t cost a lot of money. Our house shows didn’t include any work or setup—they were acoustic and we didn’t even need PAs. It was just a chance to let bands play.”
Nonetheless, Ballew and his roommate Jennifer Johnson have agreed to cease hosting shows in their two-bedroom apartment. The two were contacted by MFD after Okon found a flyer for an upcoming acoustic concert—Okon explains that once a house party is advertised, it becomes a public event and subject to the MFD’s jurisdiction. Johnson and Ballew met with Rajala to discuss the situation, and while Johnson admits to being “pretty heated” at the onset—“Knowing what’s been going on it just seemed like they were shutting down all the rock venues”—she came away from the meeting with a better understanding of the MFD’s responsibilities.
“They sat down with us for a good half hour and said right off the bat that because we were having a ‘public assembly’—what they call it—we couldn’t have more than a couple people in our house. We could have private concerts if it was just friends and not advertised,” says Johnson. “Overall, they were very understanding of our frustration with the venue situation…[Rajala] ended up brainstorming with us about where to move the concert.”
Rajala is aware of the potential for the MFD to gain a reputation as “music haters,” and says that’s not the case. He would prefer concert promoters working on shows in alternative venues contact the department beforehand to ensure the setup is safe; the MFD offers free inspections by appointment. For example, Rajala points to Break Espresso’s desire to begin hosting small evening concerts—the coffee shop contacted the MFD in advance of the first show to establish the building’s capacity and seek advice on how to properly mark exits.
Okon, who has worked as a fire fighter with MFD since 1997 and an inspector for the last year, points to The Boys and Girls Club as another example of how MFD can work beneficially with venues. While the situation sprouted from a misunderstanding—Okon mistakenly believed MARS was promoting a show at Higgins Hall—his visit to the club ended with some minor code issues being easily resolved.
“I think we turned a potentially bad situation into a good one,” says Mary Place Allyn, the club’s executive director. She ended up improving access to a back exit and upgrading the club’s extension cords. “… We’re taking care of kids—when it comes to safety issues, no matter what they are, I’ll do whatever it takes to make them right.”
The problem with enforcing fire safety, according to Rajala, is not that people blatantly disregard the laws, but rather that most are simply not aware the laws exist. He anticipates more encounters with local promoters, but wants to convey that his job is to work with them, not against them, to create a safe environment.
“Once you allow your kids to go to a concert, or if you yourself go out to a club, you’re assuming it’s going to be a safe place and everything will be fine,” explains Rajala. “The most important thing for us is to make sure that that’s in fact the case, and that Missoula never experiences something like what occurred in Rhode Island.”