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 V.18 No.52 | December 24 - 30, 2009 

Art News

The Code Talkers

Fire department calls Burque theaters on safety issues

The Vortex. Safe as houses.
Erin Adair-Hodges
The Vortex. Safe as houses.

Lt. Skip Navarrette wants citizens to know that the Albuquerque Fire Department’s primary aim is education: the prevention of injury and loss of life through shared information, community awareness, and general understanding of safety rules and regulations. And he embodies this objective. Though his regular workweek spans Monday through Thursday, Navarrette volunteered his Saturday morning in the name of comprehension. But the lesson is neither as catchy, nor as straightforward, as “stop, drop and roll.”

Note no impedements to the egress.
Erin Adair-Hodges
Note no impedements to the egress.

Rather, this meeting on Saturday, Dec. 19, addressed a recent series of “Life Safety” inspections conducted at theater spaces in Albuquerque by the lieutenant and his crew. One took place immediately following a performance at The Filling Station, another during an opening night afterparty at The Vortex (also the scene of the meeting), and still others at a handful of black box theaters throughout the city—albeit at more convenient times. In a number of cases, notices of violation were doled out, allowing the theaters to continue their operations, but under conditions of compulsory improvements and prescribed timelines. Because many of the theaters believed themselves to be in compliance with all fire codes and operating regulations, these notices came as a surprise. Addressing the violations will require repairs at an unexpected and often great expense.

Given the small and supportive network of local theaters, word of these inspections traveled fast. And, as it often does when The Man is involved, the situation escalated; rumors flew (some even migrated into my e-mail box) and confusion grew. No one seemed to understand what prompted the fire department’s visits, which general safety guidelines theaters are expected to follow, or where to find a straightforward list of regulatory requirements. As it turned out, neither did Navarrette. Not by any fault of his or the department’s, but because the guidelines they follow are derived from two different documents—the 2003 International Fire Code (IFC) and the National Fire Protection Association Life Safety Code (NFPA)—neither of which, in their 404 and 436 pages respectively, makes specifications for black box theaters and that seem, in fact, to contradict one another on certain points.

“Of course we want to comply. But not all of us speak code. ... We need a translator.”

Ka-HOOTZ’ Lou Clark

So in the due interest of safety, the Albuquerque Fire Department did its best to craft and apply a set of standards for small theaters based on the rules for assembly spaces. The problem is that these standards translate to very expensive mandates like, for example, the requirement of engineer-designed, -built and -approved seating banks—which might make sense for an assembly space like Shea Stadium, but are completely out of reach for a community theater like Auxiliary Dog. And, shocker: The mandates come without funding.

Further, the language in which these standards are communicated is cryptic at best. IFC 2003.1024.2 reads, “The main exit shall be of sufficient width to accommodate not less than one-half of the occupant load, but such width shall not be less than the total required width of all means of egress leading to the exit.” As Lou Clark of Ka-HOOTZ so eloquently expressed on behalf of her colleagues, “Of course we want to comply. But not all of us speak code. ... We need a translator.”

Under the leadership of Adobe Theatre’s Hugh Witemeyer (also the President of the Albuquerque Theatre Guild and Saturday morning’s chair), with the insights of local theater representatives and through the cooperation of Lieutenant Navarrette, a plan of action was created to solve the translation problem. And in the diplomatic tradition that the fire department and local theaters seem to be practicing, they agreed to reconvene in a month’s time to share new information, assess progress and determine outstanding needs.

In the meantime, there are notices of violation that must still be addressed—things like electrical connections and engineering consultations and set fireproofing. Theaters are working to meet the mandates quickly so that they can remain open. But according to guild members, the costs are taking a toll and, in the cases of some venues, may prove fatal if they do not receive financial support and volunteered expertise from the community. Though not as devastating as a fire, closures would surely be a tragedy

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