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Nightclub Inferno Sparked an Industry’s Push

Stalled Since 2003, National Fire Sprinkler Association Presses a Jobs Message to Sell Members on Bill

On Feb. 20, 2003, a fire ripped through a Rhode Island nightclub, killing 100 concertgoers who had gathered to watch the glam-rock band Great White.

The tragic event made national headlines. In response to the blaze, state, county and city officials across the country scrambled to update their building and fire codes, while Members began figuring out how the federal government should intervene.

At the time, officials groused that the nightclub’s lack of a sprinkler system exacerbated the flames. An obscure trade group representing fire sprinkler companies saw an opening and began working with Rep. James Langevin (D-R.I.) and other Members to develop possible tax incentives that could benefit the industry.

The National Fire Sprinkler Association’s point man on Capitol Hill back then was Jim Dalton. A former suburban Washington, D.C., fire marshal, Dalton lobbied for four consecutive Congresses to reduce the number of years it takes for commercial and residential property owners to recoup their investments in sprinkler systems.

He got nowhere. And after 17 years with the group, Dalton retired last year.

Less than a year later, Dalton’s back.

With a new contract in hand, the one-time Montgomery County, Md., official is reviving a coalition of more than 30 corporations, trade associations and fire safety organizations that want to rewrite the tax rules for building owners who are looking to make sprinkler upgrades.

But this time, with the rock concert a distant memory, Dalton has rewritten his lobbying script to address lawmakers’ most immediate concern nowadays: unemployment. While safety is still a top priority, he is gathering steam in Congress with his claim that the legislation will not only put furloughed sprinkler fitters back on the job, but also carpenters, plumbers, electricians and other tradesmen who have to come in afterward and patch up the holes around the systems.

“It’s certainly easy to make the case that you’re doing good things with this in a jobs bill,” Dalton said in an interview this week. “When you retrofit a sprinkler system in a building, there’s a lot of work.”

Making a Splash

To build support, Dalton’s group has begun airing radio ads that encourage listeners to call their Senators to support the Fire Sprinkler Incentive Act, which he hopes will be attached to a larger Senate jobs package that is expected to come up this summer.

The legislation would allow building owners who install sprinklers to depreciate their upgrades over five years, rather than the current 39 years for commercial property and 27.5 for residential buildings. In the House, the bill is sponsored by Langevin and 137 co-sponsors, while Sen. Tom Carper (D-Del.) and five of his colleagues, including Republican Sens. Susan Collins (Maine) and Richard Burr (N.C.), are sponsoring a Senate version.

In a statement, Carper called the bill “a win-win-win for the American people” and cited industry research that says the bill would create nearly 10,000 jobs.

“This legislation would improve safety, spur economic activity, and create jobs across the construction industry which has been devastated by the recent recession,” Carper said. “Small businesses, which are the heart and soul of our economy, would particularly benefit from the bill since over 70 percent of the nation’s sprinkler contractors are small businesses.”

Collective Voices

Dalton’s coalition includes a vast swath of industry groups that could benefit considerably from a tax incentive to install sprinkler systems in older buildings. The coalition includes fire safety groups like the Congressional Fire Services Institute and the Fire Department Safety Officers Association, as well as the American Health Care Association, the American Hotel and Lodging Association, the American Institute of Architects, the American Insurance Association, the Society of Fire Protection Engineers and the Associated General Contractors of America.

Sprinkler maker SimplexGrinnell is also working with Dalton’s coalition, according to a membership list. The company is a subsidiary of Tyco International, which is based in the home state of bill co-sponsor Sen. Frank Lautenberg (D-N.J.).

Dalton says the biggest obstacle to the measure is its projected cost. Earlier iterations of the bill garnered a $2.2 billion price tag from the Congressional Budget Office, he said, a figure that would mean each of the nearly 10,000 jobs expected to be created would be about $225,000 a pop.

But he argues that Congressional bean counters aren’t taking into consideration the money taxpayers would save when fewer buildings are lost to fires.

“We’ve got this score that we think is kind of unfair, but scoring is the biggest secret in Washington,” he said. “We’ve met with joint tax scoring people a number of times over the last several years without much progress.”

Peter Ginaitt, who was one of the first responders at the Station nightclub the evening of the fire, which was sparked by the band’s errant pyrotechnics, said earlier this week that Members should not simply decide the measure’s fate on a cost-benefit analysis.

“It was a proverbial perfect storm, with a rapidly moving fire … with walls that were totally constructed of combustible materials,” Ginaitt said. “Talking to the survivors afterwards, they said the fire beat them to the door.”

Now a hospital executive, Ginaitt said federal lawmakers should both apply pressure to business owners to make the upgrades and entice them to do so.

Still, he said, regardless of the motivations for passing the bill, if it does pass, it will put a bookend on a horrible situation.

“The fact that they’re resurrecting this really makes me feel happy,” Ginaitt added.

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