Playing with fire: Area clubs crack down

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— The speakers are shaking from the sound of a screaming electric guitar. Fists are pumping in the air and everyone is shouting familiar lyrics along with the heavy-metal tribute band on stage.

No one is looking for an exit.

But a recent Rhode Island nightclub fire that killed nearly 100 people may be changing the way people look at the places they go to listen to music, and it is definitely changing the way nightclub managers choose the acts they book.

In Ski Time Square, two nightclubs compete for business with drink specials and live music.

Last year, Levelz brought in Hotter Than Hell, a KISS tribute band, for Halloween.

The band advertises itself on its Web site as a group who "rocks the audience with an unforgettable mix of signature KISS tunes, fire-breathing, blood-dripping effects and explosive pyrotechnics."

But by the time Hotter Than Hell reached Levelz on Oct. 31, its pyrotechnic equipment had been confiscated, Levelz Manager Paul Michele said.

"They never used it," he said. "But they were breathing fire in our bar."

Levelz also hosted local fire jugglers High Fire last year.

During acts that use fire, Levelz made sure there were extra fire extinguishers near the stage. The acts also usually brought their own safety people as well, Levelz owner Chad Gagliano said.

The era of fire is over now, however.

In the wake of the Rhode Island tragedy, Sheraton Steamboat Resort Director of Security Jani Haffeman sent a memo to all of the Ski Time Square bar and restaurant properties managed by the Sheraton -- Levelz, Lupo's, the Tugboat, Dos Amigos and Bear River Bar & Grill -- reminding managers of fire hazards and fire safety.

The memo stated that "pyrotechnics are not allowed at any time, under any circumstances, in any location on Ski Time Square properties" and that open-flame devices are also prohibited.

The memo further urged the local businesses to make sure all emergency exits are clearly marked and that those exits and the paths to them are not blocked.

Bar staff were asked to make sure employees are trained in evacuation procedures and use of fire extinguishers.

Colorado is one of only two states -- the other is Hawaii -- without a state fire marshal. All fire codes in Colorado are written on the local level. Steamboat Springs Fire Marshal Jay Muhme works for the city.

Since the Rhode Island fire, which was caused by an unlicensed pyrotechnics display, lawmakers in the surrounding East Coast states have discussed increased penalties for violations of fire codes.

In Steamboat, it is the responsibility of the business owner to act responsibly, Muhme said.

When Muhme first began working for the city 17 years ago, one of his duties was to walk through local bars two to three times a week and write citations for violations of the fire code.

"After a while, it became a real problem with paying me overtime," Muhme said. The city eliminated the weekly walkthroughs.

"We know where the problem areas are," Muhme said. "We act when someone complains."

Now, local bars go through fire inspections once a year as part of the annual process for renewing their liquor licenses.

"That's the way we have control," Muhme said.

When local nightclubs book bands that use pyrotechnics, they are required to apply for a permit. No one applied in 2002, Muhme said, but that doesn't mean it didn't happen.

"I hear about it after the fact," he said. "These bands fly into town and fly out and they don't worry about that stuff."

In the aftermath of the Rhode Island fire, however, Gagliano said Levelz won't be booking acts that use fire or pyrotechnics.

"In light of what happened," Gagliano said, "we aren't going to play around with that stuff anymore."

To reach Autumn Phillips call 871-4210 or e-mail aphillips@steamboatpilot.com

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