Fire Department checks capacity in Kent bars

Joanna Kamvorous

When drinking with friends downtown, don’t be surprised to see lieutenants from the Kent Fire Department checking out the bars.

They’re not there to drink or extinguish a fire but rather to prevent one from happening. 

The Kent Fire Prevention Bureau conducts surprise inspections downtown, checking the capacity of crowded bars to see if business owners obeyed the threshold limit.

Fire Prevention Officers Lieutenants Jamie Samels and Jeff Coffee usually begin their inspection at 11 p.m. and conclude around 3 a.m., checking the exits, lighting and capacity of bars, including Bar 145, 157 Lounge, Panini’s and Buffalo Wild Wings.

“Employees should be counting as people enter and exit, and they have to know how many people they’re allowed to have inside,” Samels said. “So if I ask how many people are inside and they say they’re not counting, that’s the wrong answer.”

Surprise inspections

General Manager Dan Edmondson of Bar 145, which holds a maximum of 255 patrons, said the Lieutenants interact directly with the manager.

“They pop in about every other week or so,” Edmondson said. “We usually keep record behind the counter as people walk in and out of the bar and make sure the flow of the building is open so people can get out safely through our exits.”

Samels said random inspections assure that managers uphold their responsibilities on a regular basis.

“If I go every weekend, they’ll expect me, so I’m not trying to trick anybody by doing it, but if I tell them I’m coming, they’re going to follow the rules that night,” Samels said. “I want to walk in and see if they follow them without having a clue that I’m coming.”

Spreading safety awareness

Samels said it is paramount for students to have a sense of awareness about their surroundings.

“It’s easy to get into a bad situation if you’re not aware of the dangers,” Samels said. “Part of the element of safety is that you have a responsibility as a young adult to remove yourself from a situation that doesn’t seem safe.”

Samels said he and Coffee remind business managers of past catastrophic incidents in bars, sharing footage such as the 2003 Rhode Island Station Night Club Fire  video as an educational tool to avoid danger. The Rhode Island Station Night Club Fire was the fourth deadliest night club fire in U.S. history, killing 100 people after the Great White band’s pyrotechnics ignited the foam insulation lining the ceiling of the stage. Of the fatalities, 95 were due to the inability of the occupants to evacuate.

“We interact with the crowds and it’s almost always positive,” Samels said. “Usually they ask why we’re there and we explain that we make sure they’re not overcrowded. There are occasions when somebody’s had too much to drink and doesn’t see us as positive, but our job is about preventing problems.”

Businesses comply 

Samels said that if faced with a cooperation issue, he and Coffee have the authority to alert police, empty the bar and allow the appropriate amount of people back in, but said he has never had to do so.

“Since we work pretty closely with the bar owners downtown, it’s rare to come across any problems in cooperation,” Samels said. “They know what we’re looking for when we go in, and they’ll ask if we need a glass of water and tell us to feel free to look around.”

General Manager George Fox of Panini’s, which holds a maximum capacity of 240, said the inspections run smoothly.

“They go through their checklist and identify issues that we may or may not have and they tell us what we need to fix,” Fox said. “If we have, for example, a light bulb out in an exit sign, they’ll come back and do a re-inspection to make sure that it’s fixed.”

Fox said Panini’s provides a safe and comfortable environment for employees and guests.

“Whether I’m a proprietor or a guest, I want to make sure that the building I’m in is safe and that the fire inspections of the sprinklers and other safety precautions are available,” Fox said. “I’ve worked with the Lieutenants in the course of the last year, and we’ve never had any problems or issues.”

Contact Joanna Kamvorous at [email protected].