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American Concert Industry Questioning Safety After Brazilian Nightclub Fire

Some calling for stricter regulations after January tragedy

Fin Costello/Redferns
February 7, 2013 3:20 PM ET

The Brazilian nightclub fire on January 31st that left 238 people dead and more than 100 hospitalized prompted officials in Brazil, Venezuela, Nicaragua and Mexico to intensify club safety regulation, accelerate inspections and temporarily close dozens of clubs and bars. "What happened in Brazil is a warning for the whole world," Miguel Angel Mancera, mayor of Mexico City, said after the tragedy.

In the United States, nightclub managers say they've already gone through intensive safety changes in the decade since a fire killed 100 people at a Great White show in West Warwick, Rhode Island. "After Rhode Island, there were definitely code changes," Mitchell Frank, manager of the Echo club in Los Angeles, tells Rolling Stone. "We hunkered down and got down to business."

Hundreds Die in Brazil Nightclub Fire

The problems that appear to have contributed to the Brazilian tragedy – overcrowding, not enough exits, setting off pyrotechnics onstage – are unlikely to happen at established U.S. clubs, Frank and others maintain. At the Echo, managers have a nightly security meeting and make sure sprinkler systems, extinguishers, exits and capacities are regularly monitored. "Building a large music venue downtown, one of the many hoops we had to go through was to ensure public safety," Frank says.

While the Echo still allows acts to use pyro as long as a fire marshal is present for the show, other clubs have banned the effects entirely since 2003. "In nightclubs, the idea of pyrotechnics is just irresponsible and not necessary," says Joe Shanahan, talent buyer for the Metro in Chicago. Adds Peter Tempkins, senior vice president for GNW-Evergreen Insurance, which represents clubs, promoters and festivals, "It sounds like what happened in Brazil was not pyro but road flares. That's beyond stupidity."

However, this "it could never happen here" philosophy is troublesome to Paul Wertheimer, head of Los Angeles' Crowd Management Strategies. He has been pleading for better live-music safety procedures for over 30 years. "This is the same old mantra you've heard from the industry: they've learned it now and things are different," he says. "Things are not significantly safer for fans in the U.S. than they were pre-2003. That's the problem. The Brazil disaster's a copy of the Great White disaster." Wertheimer believes many artists, promoters and venues cut corners to save money whenever possible, and only stringent U.S. laws regarding festival seating, crowd-management training and capacity control will begin to fix safety problems. "Things have inched forward but are woefully lacking," he says. "Fans are still very vulnerable."

In response to tragedies such as the Station fire and the deadly Indiana State Fair stage collapse of 2010, hundreds in the concert industry have formed the Event Safety Alliance to improve training, certification and inspection at live shows. "If promoters and agents aren't willing to self-police, it's inevitable another tragedy will happen," says Paul Bassman, president of Dallas-based Doodson Insurance Brokerage, which represents prominent clubs and festivals such as Lollapalooza and Austin City Limits.

Bassman does agree with club owners who insist that safety has improved over the past decade. Before Great White, he recalls, promoters didn't worry as much about raising safety standards in order to qualify for insurance. "A lot of people did business on handshake deals and through good-old-boy networks," he says. "They woke up one day and said, 'Oh, wow, I might lose my business now because I don't have insurance.' People actually cared."

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