As the horrific scenes from one of the world's deadliest nightclub fires spread across the globe, fire officials in the Bay Area on Monday insisted there are much stricter laws and enforcement to prevent a similar tragedy from happening here.
Witnesses and authorities at the blaze that killed more than 230 people early Sunday in the southern Brazilian city of Santa Maria said a band performing at a crowded nightclub lit pyrotechnics that sparked foam insulation ablaze. As mobs of people moved toward a lone, temporarily blocked exit, bodies began piling up as toxic fumes suffocated partyers.
"When we see those reports, the first thing we think is: This is preventable," said Mindy Talmadge, a spokeswoman for the San Francisco Fire Department. "At least here, there are all types of fire codes and processes in place to prevent that type of thing."
In the Bay Area, indoor pyrotechnic shows are rare -- especially in small venues -- and are heavily monitored by firefighters. And while tight budgets have curtailed some inspection efforts, officials say they keep an eye on nightclub occupancy limits and ensure that multiple exits are unlocked.
New commercial buildings in California must have sprinklers, working fire extinguishers and alarms -- none of which the Kiss nightclub in Brazil had.
"I don't know what the fire codes are in Brazil, but if it were anything of that size and magnitude here we would definitely not allow it," said San Jose fire marshal Curtis Jacobson, a deputy chief, noting the city limits 50 people per exit in nightclubs. "I would say that I would find it highly unlikely that something like that would happen here."
Laws regulating nightclub fire safety -- such as sprinklers and emergency lights -- have spread rapidly since 492 people were killed in a nightclub fire at Boston's Cocoanut Grove in 1942, the nation's deadliest club blaze.
Clubs and officials boosted efforts in 2003 after a Rhode Island nightclub fire killed 100 people. That fire was sparked when pyrotechnics during a set by the band Great White set foam insulation ablaze. A fireworks show at a nightclub in Russia fueled a fire that killed 152 people in 2009, while 194 people died in a ceiling foam fire in Argentina in 2004.
The death toll in the Brazil fire stood at 231 Monday as police announced they had detained three people and were looking for a fourth. Among the reported problems were fire extinguishers that didn't work, overcrowding, lack of sprinklers and a single exit that security guards initially tried to block out of fear that customers were running out without paying their bills.
Bay Area officials say that pyrotechnic shows are rare and generally only allowed at big venues, like a recent Britney Spears concert at the Bill Graham Civic Auditorium in San Francisco. In those cases, the fire department must provide a permit and monitors the show before, during and after.
In Oakland, the fire department has unofficially banned fireworks in nightclubs. In the past, the department has allowed the Oracle Arena and Paramount Theatre to have pyrotechnics during shows.
"We wouldn't really allow it in a small venue," Oakland Fire Department deputy chief James Williams said.
San Jose and San Francisco crews conduct routine, announced fire code checks annually and show up occasionally for spot checks during business hours. They look to be sure clubs don't pack in too many people and that exits are clearly marked and unlocked.
Still, most fire departments -- especially in a time of budget restraints -- rely heavily on the club owners to comply with the law and on clubgoers to report potential problems.
The Santa Cruz Fire Department tries to conduct inspections at bars and nightclubs at least every two or three years, or during ownership changes.
But Fire Chief Jeff Trapp said budget and staffing cuts have made that more difficult in recent years. On the biggest nights out, which in Santa Cruz are Halloween and New Year's Eve, "we put out a team in the field to do checks at bars," Trapp said.
Trapp said he plans to have internal discussions about the fire in Brazil, but there are no immediate plans to do anything differently or conduct more inspections.
"Historically, it hasn't been an issue for us here," Trapp said of the fire in Brazil. "We don't have anything close to that size in Santa Cruz."
Fire officials urged clubgoers to report anything suspicious -- such as locked exits -- and to know how to leave in an emergency. If you feel unsafe, they say, leave.
"Our message," Talmadge said, "would be: Look out for your own safety."