Where's the Fire?

Live Music Venues vs. the Fire Marshal


illustration by Nathan Jensen

Where's a better way to cause a panic in Austin than yelling "Fire!" in a crowded theatre: Try yelling "Fire Marshal!" in a crowded live music club, instead. Or so that seemed to be the case at this year's South by Southwest. Perusing articles in various local and national media about the conference, one could easily get the idea that there's a war going on between the Fire Department and the local music scene. But is that really the case?

On the surface, no. Most club owners say they have a fine relationship with the boys in red. Liberty Lunch's J'net Ward remembers three years ago when her club was hassled by a person she says is no longer with the department. Since then, Ward says things have been fine. Other venues in the Sixth Street area say things are okay, and those away from the music district indicate that they really don't have any comment on the matter. A reporter is led, though, to look behind the cheery smiles and wonder if something were wrong, would they tell the press?

Probably not. After all, the Fire Department wields a considerable amount of power. When an article appeared in Rolling Stone last month containing a paragraph that could be interpreted as indicating use of pyrotechnics at a Waterloo Records in-store, the local music clearinghouse started receiving calls and visits from the FD. Waterloo owner John Kunz was audibly distressed when asked for comments on the situation. And why not? In a situation like that, you wait to make sure the good guys really are good before you risk crossing them.

So is there a war going on? Well, there was most definitely something awry during the third week of March. If not, asks SXSW's Brent Grulke, "Why in the hell does every publication from Rolling Stone to L.A.'s New Times mention the Austin Fire Department?" The presence of the boys in red was certainly hard not to notice that week, which isn't unusual, considering their job is to keep people safe and SXSW is a huge event that packs patrons into clubs.

But what is it, as Grulke queries, that made the department's presence so tangible as to make it such an important component of so many writers' musings? Were they patrolling the streets and clubs during that time to keep things safe, or to just throw their weight around? "It seemed," says Grulke, carefully emphasizing that last word, "that they were less interested in real safety issues than grandstanding."

Grulke's prime beef is that the FD's involvement in SXSW seemed "inconsistent"; he sighs, adding that "It's really frustrating to have the rules change in the middle of the conference." Grulke refers to a number of situations, including one at Emo's where a patron apparently ripped down the club's load card (which states the venue's official capacity) and the department required they replace it the next day, and another at the Flamingo Cantina where the club was reprimanded over a string of Christmas lights that had been up for years. SXSW security director Steve Chaney says that the encounters between the department and the clubs at the conference didn't have anything to do with capacity enforcement and notes that "This is the busiest week of the year in the `Live Music Capital of the World' and it seems they weren't taking that into consideration." Grulke further asks, "Why the letter of the law when the letter of the law isn't being enforced the rest of the year?"

"The inspector technically can't ignore that," counters Assistant Fire Marshal Bob Wheeless in reference to the Flamingo Cantina, adding that the club wasn't told to immediately remove the offending lights. "I told 'em we'd deal with 'em later," he says. On the Emo's front, owner Eric Hartman comes to the FD's defense, pointing out that, "They could've said, `You're shut down' without the load card." His only hassle, he says, was with the city not wanting to come out and deal with replacing the missing card.

Grulke says he understands the importance of the department's alertness during SXSW, but wonders why there was a "much higher presence" by the FD during this year's conference. He says that, as usual, SXSW had been dealing with the FD for months previous in order to ensure a smooth-running week. "Why couldn't this have been dealt with beforehand?" he asks. Chaney also seems mystified that "There were many more problems this year than when we started working closely with [the fire department] four years ago." He says that where the FD was concerned, he sensed an "aura of mistrust" throughout the week, observing what he termed "an amazing series of misunderstandings over small things." So, why weren't all these wrinkles ironed out in advance?

"I don't know," Wheeless freely admits, "My own personal perspective is that more things are coming up because of the magnitude of the thing." He mentions the expansion of SXSW, including the film and multimedia festivals that accompany the music fest, and blames SXSW for making what he calls "bad weather decisions" this year. Meanwhile, he agrees with Grulke that communication between the department and the organization was below par this year. He says he hopes to get that resolved neatly by initiating preparations much earlier for next year's conference.

"We've been starting in January or February, and that's not [working]," he notes. For SXSW '98, Wheeless is talking about getting discussions started as soon as next month, a thought that makes SXSW boss Roland Swenson put on one doozy of a baffled expression. Grulke, meanwhile, just wants communication to improve next year: "It's difficult enough to schedule things with the clubs, and it just makes it that much worse if they think they're more likely to get visited by the fire marshal."

When all is said and done, it's the clubs themselves which are at the heart of this, and it's easy to question just how candid clubowners are being when they say they don't have any troubles with the fire department. SXSW is a big bear of its own, so it's not surprising that Grulke isn't afraid to speak his mind, but when Hartman or Ward say that they have a good relationship with the FD, it's easy to feel a twinge of `Are they just saying that to keep from getting hassled?'

After all, clubs and the authorities are natural adversaries. Nobody wants to run an unsafe business, but when money's hard to come by, it's tough to smile when you see a man at your door who informs you that you need to drop a few thousand dollars on safety equipment or else close down your venue. It's like the IRS; even if you know you don't owe them money, the idea of those three little letters makes you shudder inside. As Wheeless himself puts it, "People do think that we're picking on them -- but that's what we're there to do."

It's not surprising, then, that club owners might be wary of letting any complaints about the FD find their way into print, but that doesn't mean nobody's talking. Outside of SXSW, the majority of the words about the FD are expelled from one of Sixth Street's prime music venues, Steamboat, where outspoken owner Danny Crooks says he's been frustrated lately by what he, like Grulke, perceives as inconsistency on the part of the FD.

Crooks says that things had been going along just fine for the last three years (after the individual that Ward at Liberty Lunch referred to left), and that both he and the department were satisfied with Steamboat's occupancy limit of 472, which had been set several years earlier by a "menu for the live music" that the FD had prepared in anticipation of SXSW. That number dropped to an income-crushing 220 after complaints during a Valentine's Day Vallejo gig led to a visit by Wheeless. When Crooks showed Wheeless the "menu," he says that the fireman first insisted that there were more than 472 people in the club, then announced that the document wouldn't be good after the following Monday. "Just because he had to get out of bed and come out here," grumbles Crooks, "now they're fuckin' with me."

Wheeless says that Crooks was in error thinking that the "menu," a helpful guide printed up as an aid in preparing for SXSW, was the equivalent of an official load card -- a document that all places of public assembly must display to show their safe limit of occupancy. That simply isn't true, says Wheeless. For his part, Crooks supports his position by saying he has shown this menu to fire department officials making their routine inspections for the past three years and has been given no guff before. To that, Wheeless admits he's "shocked."

Crooks also claims that the details regarding payment on a fine he received from the FD keep changing. Now, to raise his capacity to the desired number, Crooks must install a sprinkler system in the club, which he says he's ready to get to work on but fears getting contradictory information later. "If it seems like the place would be safer, then I'm putting in a sprinkler system. I just want some consistency," he pleads, adding that estimates for such an improvement are running somewhere in the vicinity of $15,000. Nevertheless, it will be worth it: "If I can put the sprinkler system in and they'll leave me alone, then I've been a jerk by bitching about this."

The mystery of Crooks' menu notwithstanding, figuring out a club's occupancy is a pretty simple thing, based on two factors: the type of building and the type of business. For a club like Steamboat, for example, the formula for maximum occupancy is to divide the number of square feet by 15 for a place with tables and chairs, or by seven if you take the furniture out. The building in which the club is housed -- any building --
however, cannot legally hold in excess of 299 people, without the proper safety equipment including a certain number of exits, and in the case of Steamboat, a sprinkler system.

Fortunately, the fire department, unlike, say, the Texas Alcoholic Beverage Commission, has a very precise set of rules to follow in their enforcement of safety issues. Dan Garcia at the Development and Services Review Department says that Austin's load cards follow the Uniform Building Code, a national standard that's pretty much a constant throughout the western half of the United States, and has been in effect here for at least 20 years.

"If you don't have a load card," says Garcia, "we'll issue you one." Of course, he adds that there's talk of a new international building code taking over in three years, but you club owners can wipe off those beads of sweat: "Occupant load factors are not retroactive," he says. Your occupancy rate will remain safe from sudden drops "from here to eternity -- as long as your exits are correct." And hopefully, the city's clubgoers will remain safe as well; Wheeless reminds those who might not be happy to see him, "People do die in club fires. Thank goodness it hasn't happened in Austin."

Some other club owners have intimated that any apparent clubs-versus-FD battle is really just a Crooks-versus-FD battle. Typical comments from this camp run along the lines of, `Danny always seems to have a problem with someone! If it's not the police, it's the Fire Department.' There are logical reasons for Steamboat to be at the center of the issue, however. As Crooks puts it, "People who go to the Electric Lounge are people who like the Electric Lounge and they won't snitch if the club is crowded and they can't get in." Steamboat's Sixth Street location and booking of more mainstream and label-bound acts, on the other hand, is more likely to attract "people with a little bit of money [who] think they're better than anybody."

Wheeless concurs: "A lot of times we'll get a complaint from somebody standing outside
[a club] who can't get in." The police have also been known to put in a call to Wheeless if they suspect a problem, and given their presence there, clubs on Sixth Street are especially likely to catch the APD's attention. The FD paid a call on Bob Popular's three weeks ago, for instance, during one of their well-attended Thursday nights, and Don Robinson, who was handling security that night, says he figured that the line outside the club and the fact that Sixth isn't blocked off on Thursdays is what precipitated the visit. The problem has since been solved, he says, with which Wheeless concurs. "It was beautiful there the other night, when we made a follow-up check."

So, is Sixth Street an unfair target of fire safety officials? Calls to live music venues that bookend the local music scene, the Broken Spoke to the south, and Pearl's to the north, found that their most recent inspections were a mere two and six weeks ago, respectively. It doesn't look to me like they're getting a free ride.

Which means what? Only that, perhaps, when Crooks gets his sprinkler and SXSW gets an early start for 1998, we can look forward to future Rolling Stone features on upcoming bands where the writer's only complaints about Austin concern how he singed his mouth on habañero sauce? Maybe that's the real burning question.

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