Two of our planned live reviews scheduled for this week were derailed due to the venues hitting capacity before our writers arrived. This was annoying at the time, but that frustration seems inconsequential in the aftermath of the horrific nightclub fire in Brazil that, as of the latest tally, has killed 231 people. It's hard to keep it in mind when you're waiting outside in the cold, but all those annoying rules that seem invented solely to impinge on having a good time often have very good reasons behind them.
It doesn't seem like a stretch to say that fire regulations in Toronto are far stricter than in Brazil. They're also more likely to be enforced here than in Russia, where 153 partiers perished in a similar fire at the Lame Horse Night Club in 2009. Or in Buenos Aires, where 194 were killed in 2004 after a pyrotechnics display went awry. Or the Philippines, which saw 162 young people die when fire swept through the grossly over-crowded Ozone Disco Club in 1996. Lax regulations and enforcement may have also have played roles in the 43 people killed in a 2008 club fire in China, or the 66 who died in a Thai New Years Eve party in 2009.
As much as these disasters seem so far away, let's not forget the infamous 2003 fire at the Station in Rhode Island, which claimed 100 lives after Great White's pyrotechnics ignited the ceiling. This was just three days after the stampede at the E2 nightclub in Chicago, in which 21 patrons died after bouncers used pepper spray to break up a fight. The US might not seem quite as safety-conscious as Canada, but it's not so different that we can afford to feel smug.
Saturday night's tragedy should be a wake up call to club owners everywhere. As much as we'd like to believe that Toronto is immune to this kind of thing, anyone who goes out a lot knows that many venues view their legal capacity numbers as a vague suggestion rather than a strict rule. I've seen bouncers using two tally counters, one with the "official" number, and the other with the actual number of patrons. I've had security admit to me off the record that they regularly allow an extra 50% above their official limit in on busier nights. The inevitable fines when they get caught are regarded as the price of doing business.
Most venues with multiple rooms are notorious for not keeping track of how many bodies are actually in each room. And when they are monitoring individual room numbers, this often just leads to bottlenecks at hallways and stairwells that should be kept clear. Think of how long it can take you to push your way to the bathroom at some events and try to picture making your way to an exit in an emergency.
Pyrotechnics are relatively rare in Toronto venues, but in my younger days I've performed on stage with fireworks myself, and I know that there wasn't a lot of oversight or concerns about whether the club was able to accommodate them safely. Typically, it was only the bigger stages that said no: smaller bars just trusted that our guy knew what he was doing. In retrospect, I'm not so sure. When I think of how many low-tech fire tricks I've seen recklessly performed on Toronto stages, I start to realize just how lucky we've been.
You might be telling yourself that building codes in Canada make it far less likely that flammable sound proofing material, a recurring factor in nightclub fire disasters elsewhere, would be used . On the other hand, I've definitely seen smaller bars engaging in some very DIY sound proofing attempts in response to angry neighbours and politicians. Permits? Give me a break. Doing it right is very expensive, and some of these places just don't have the money. How confident are you that your favourite watering hole didn't just fill up their ceiling with whatever seemed like it would absorb some bass?
On the flip side, over-regulation of Toronto's nightlife can actually motivate unsafe practices. One of the reasons many venues regularly exceed capacity is that the legal number is sometimes set so low that the club seems half empty if they stick to it. In these cases, the legal number often has less to do with what's safe and more to do with the political climate in the area. If capacity regulations are being designed around restricting the number of people hanging out in the neighbourhood at night, rather what can be safely accommodated in a venue, is it surprising that they'd get ignored?
Similarly, the more you crackdown on legal nightlife, the more you'll see events happening completely outside the regulatory framework. As fun as warehouse parties can be, these spaces aren't generally designed with escape routes for hundreds of partiers in mind. There's also far less motivation to follow safe capacity guidelines when there's no liquor license to be revoked.
Don't treat what happened in Brazil as some freak accident that could never happen here. Instead, lets take this moment to take a closer look at what we can do better to make sure that a good night out doesn't end in tragedy.