AUSTIN (KXAN) — Austin Fire Department inspectors are planning to be out in force this weekend for the kickoff of the Austin City Limits festival, dropping by bars and clubs without warning to make sure they’re not overcrowded.
Sixth Street is busy enough on a normal weekend, let alone during an event which hundreds of thousands of people are expected to attend, overflowing into downtown venues for after-party shows. Firefighters want to make sure owners aren’t going overboard for a few extra cover charges.
Bob Woody knows the risk of doing that. “We’ve probably had a dozen fires in different places,” Woody, president of the East Sixth Street Community Association and owners of many businesses downtown, said.
Most of those fires have been small and most started in kitchens, he said. But in 2009, a fire engulfed the top floor of one of his business, the Blind Pig Pub. “This one in particular was a smoldering cigarette that caught the deck on fire up here and burned it,” he said.
Fortunately no one was there at the time — it happened after the bar closed. Since then Woody said he’s taken steps to make sure it doesn’t happen again when that might not be the case. When rebuilding, he replaced the wooden deck with concrete.
“After that,” he added, “I began installing the fire sprinkler system.”
AFD inspectors want to make sure big fires don’t break out anywhere when people are packed inside; too many people trying to leave at once can make an emergency much worse. Rob Vires, battalion chief and fire marshal with AFD, took reporters on a tour of the Blind Pig Wednesday to explain what they look for when they stop in for an inspection.
“The doors are open, that they’re not going to obscure someone from getting out in a hurry,” Vires said, unlocking and swinging the doors open. Inspectors check occupancy permits, make sure emergency exits will light up if the power goes out, and make sure exits aren’t blocked.
Vires found a truck partially blocking a back door during the tour, and while it wasn’t a problem during the day with virtually no one inside the bar, “this is not the same exit as it is without a car in the way,” he said.
AFD will be using a dozen or so personnel to drop in on owners for surprise inspections during ACL looking for places that are too packed.
“It’s when you have to squeeze between bodies from one place to the other that there’s a chance that that place might be overcrowded,” Vires said.
Last year during ACL, three bars were cited for overcrowding, all within about a block of one another. The Dirty Dog and Cheers Shot Bar were each cited once, and the Rooftop on 6th was cited twice. Vires said they try not to cite establishments for having a few too many people — it’s only when the space is significantly over its limit that they write citations.
In 2016 as a whole, AFD wrote 19 overcrowding citations, 25 citations for not having a public assembly permits, and 11 for locked or blocked exits.
Woody welcomes the inspections. He said they’re a good chance for bar owners to reevaluate how to keep their customers safe in the event of an emergency. “What are we doing differently from what we used to do? What are the changes that we’ve made to avoid those situations?”