Disco disaster: could it happen here?

All nightclubs are steamy and packed. Could fire strike in London or Manchester? Alister Morgan investigates
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Indy Lifestyle Online
I cannot recall the number of clubs I've been to over the past few years. They have, more or less, become a blur of indefinable memories, but while the venues and companions change, some things are constant: loud throbbing music, flashing lights and hundreds of people pressed together, arms flailing and bodies sweating.

You get used to the routine; you also get used to feeling safe. For many of the individuals who flock to clubs across the country, the perceived risks do not extend past choosing a particular pharmaceutical trip and selecting a stranger unaccompanied by a violent partner. But the death of more than 150 people this week in a nightclub blaze in the Philippines may alter that complacency.

The Manila club was packed with around 350 people, though it was licensed for less than a quarter of that number; many were students celebrating the end of the school year.

It appears that the fire was triggered by a cooking fuel tank that exploded. Witnesses said they heard people screaming to be let out. "We were dancing. All of a sudden the lights went out, but I thought it was part of the effects," said Lorna Paredes, a 19-year-old student. The fire spread swiftly through furnishings, producing toxic fumes and thick smoke. Reports suggest that the venue had no fire exits and many individuals were crushed in the stampede to escape.

The tragedy in the Philippines shares many characteristics with another closer to home. A fire at the Stardust club in Dublin claimed 48 victims 15 years ago. Desperate rescuers used their hands and ropes to tear bars from windows in their attempts to free screaming revellers trapped inside.

Health and safety measures affecting clubs have since been tightened in Britain. "If you run a public entertainment venue you have to have an inspector deem the premises safe for the general public before you are granted a licence," explains John Shaughnessy, Principal Inspector of Health, Safety and Licensing Division for the London Borough of Brent. "In the above cases, the fabric of the building was not sufficiently fire resistant to prevent the blaze travelling quickly. I don't think there is any question that health and safety conditions in the UK are currently of a higher standard than in the Philippines."

Nevertheless, anyone who regularly frequents clubs and bars can describe occasional scenes of dangerous overcrowding and fire exits either padlocked or obscured.

On the night, responsibility for overall health and safety rests with the attending manager or licensee. Clubbing in the 1980s was characterised by illegal raves in warehouses and other venues; safety measures were non-existent with promoters prepared to herd revellers in like cattle. Entry was always guaranteed providing you knew the location, possessed the entrance fee and did not work for Her Majesty's constabulary. But the stereotype of negligent promoters is one present managers are quick to refute.

"At this level of club promotions there is a tiny minority who overstep the mark," argues Daz, whose World Dance Corporation assembled the first rave in London Docklands for 11,500 people last New Year's Eve. "When we started there was no governing body to license all-night rave events so we drew up our own set of procedures and policies. The only reason we've been so successful is because we operate by the book."

The Leisure Lounge is one of the most popular clubs in London and has capacity for 500. The owners spent in excess of pounds 250,000 converting the venue to meet strict safety guidelines. "Clubs have to be run professionally because you'd last one week if you didn't follow council guidelines," says manager Tim Clarke. "We're not going to jeopardise members of the public. This is also our livelihood, so we're not going to risk it."

Ex-fireman Andrew Ings, from the Institution of Risk and Safety Management, acts as a consultant for the club. Every five weeks he checks the premises in addition to lecturing all staff on safety and fire prevention. "In my experience most clubs meet the basic requirements but this is the best trained club in London.

"In this club nothing will burn. The amount of combustible material should be minimised. There is no way that you can say a serious fire will never occur here, you just minimise the risk until it's highly improbable. The emphasis therefore should be on prevention and staff training and awareness."

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