Fire hazards impede facility

Fire hazards impede facility

URBANA - A performance space at the Urbana-Champaign Independent Media Center, 218 W. Main St., was closed by Urbana officials Thursday night.

City officials said, in effect, that the show must not go on, because it could be unsafe.

"There are a number of concerns," said Elizabeth Tyler, community development director for the city of Urbana. "We felt we had to post the notice because the space is not safe. (It's) not suitable for public assembly use."

Meghan Krausch, a spokesman for the center, said they don't dispute that changes must be made but she called the city's requirements "a knee-jerk reaction" to events that had nothing to do with the Independent Media Center.

In March, tragedies at two nightclubs put the spotlight on life-safety issues for bars and public assembly buildings. Nearly 100 people were killed in a Rhode Island club when fireworks from a band's performance caused a rapidly spreading fire. Also, in Chicago, 21 clubgoers were killed when a crowd panicked trying to get away from security guards using pepper spray. Many more were injured as the mob crushed people in a stairwell and doorway.

That's why attention to building exits, to electrical work and to flammable materials are important, Urbana Fire Chief Rex Mundt said. That's also why the actual use of a building must be known to make sure it meets specific criteria for the use and size of a crowd. For example, restaurants, churches and bars must meet public assembly guidelines, he said.

Spot inspections of Class A liquor establishments were conducted in March by Urbana and Champaign fire officials in the wake of the fatal incidents. The Independent Media Center was not inspected at that time and was not, until this week, officially known to be a place of public assembly, Urbana officials said Friday.

It is very rare when the city gives such short notice to halt a building use, Mundt said.

Fire safety issues raised by an inspection Monday were:

- Debris around an electrical panel on the north door wall needed to be cleared to permit access to an electrical panel.

- An exit for a stairway to the second floor needed to be cleared.

- Extension cords and temporary lighting in the ceiling needed to be replaced with a permanent, approved wiring system.

- A approved electrical panel needed to be installed on the north wall.

- Insulation needed to be removed, and drywall needed to be extended on one wall in the band area to prevent fire spread.

- A sprinkler system needed to be repaired immediately.

Also on Monday, Urbana fire Company Officer Chad Hensch sent a memo to fire and building inspection officials that raised other issues, including the fact that occupants of apartments over the media center must evacuate through a stairwell that leads through a storage closet, through the band area and then out a concealed door.

Among the most disturbing conditions, according to Chief Mundt, is some drapery around the stage that had apparently been installed for soundproofing. It appears to consist of velvet material backed by some type of flammable foam, he said.

"This is a killer," Mundt said. "We don't have any idea what type of fire rating the material has, let alone the foam behind it."

The makeshift overhead track lighting system, an open electrical panel and a suitcase being used as an electrical panel also pose fire hazards, according to Mundt.

"That's a very scary concentration of (electrical) charge," Tyler said. "There's a lot of power coming into one small area and no fire protection system."

Tim Mecum, an Urbana building safety inspector, said that an exit door from the stage area was covered by a sheet and that the door swung inward, which could have been a disaster if there was a fire.

"That's where (people) are going to pile up," Mecum said.

"Regretfully," added Mundt, "we had to make the call and take action immediately in this case because there were performances scheduled."

Tyler said that city officials and media center representatives had a productive meeting Friday afternoon and will work together to correct problems, where possible. The city will also help the center to find more suitable space for upcoming scheduled performers, she said.

The Independent Media Center can continue to use its office space, but the stage area in the back will remain closed while volunteers correct deficiencies, Tyler said.

Zach Miller, a volunteer coordinator for the performance space, said Friday that the shutdown came just three days after the center was originally notified of the problems. At that time, the media center learned of six violations and was told that a follow-up inspection would be done May 29.

"We immediately began making plans to correct the deficiencies," Miller said. "We were operating in good faith and intended to come into compliance."

City officials Friday explained the processes necessary for the center to obtain the proper building construction permits and use permits for the kinds of things that have apparently evolved there.

Mundt said that it was only upon reviewing reports from a routine annual commercial building inspection that fire safety and building inspectors learned how the building was actually being used and what kinds of fire hazards might exist.

"We are trained, all of us, that once we know public events that are going to occur in a facility with unsafe conditions, we would be negligent if we allowed those events to go on," Mundt said.

Miller said media center volunteers did immediately remove chairs and items that were blocking an electrical panel. The staff had begun to plan on how to replace the lighting system, but thought it had until May 29 to do so. The sprinkler system was installed before the media center moved into the building and has never been hooked up to the water supply, he said.

"It's never been made clear to us that it was needed," Miller said.

He said the performance space has regular bookings for touring and local music performers and is the "only all-ages, non-smoking live music venue in town."

Tyler, who oversees the city's building inspection division, said the performance space was unsafe and not suitable for public assembly uses.

Previous, routine commercial building inspections were based on the building's permitted use for office space on the first floor and a single, residential space on the second floor. It now appears that there are three upstairs apartments and a public assembly area on the first floor, in addition to office space, she said.

"There is no certificate of occupancy for this to be a public assembly space," Elizabeth Miller said. "We had no awareness to come in and inspect for some of these conditions."

Krausch said the center relies on revenue from the performances to pay for community arts and cultural programs the center sponsors. Shutting the performances down will hurt the center's ability to function, and the cost of making the repairs required by the city is prohibitively expensive for the center.

"They're basically making it impossible for us to do business in Urbana," she said.

You can reach Steve Bauer at (217) 351-5318 or via e-mail at sbauer@news-gazette.com.

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