D.C. Fire Chief Burton Johnson said yesterday he is seeking direct authority to close down immediately businesses such as theaters and dance halls when inspectors find violations of fire safety regulations.
He said the authority is needed to avoid enforcement delays caused by the present system of issuing citations, referring the violation to other government agencies and taking offenders to court.
Johnson's assertions to a reporter followed a 90-minute, closed-door meeting yesterday in which fire and housing department officials discussed ways of tightening the city's building safety code in the wake of the Cinema Follies fire Monday that took eight lives.
The meeting was called by Johnson at the request of Mayor Walter E. Washington and also follows published reports of illegally locked fire exits in some city public schools. There has been a long smoldering debate among fire, housing and school officials over whether and how fire safety regulations in public schools should be enforced.
The division os authority in such matters was apparently one of the topics at yesterday's meeting, although none of those attending would say so specifically.
Johnson said the same officials will meet again Monday and announce proposals then for tightening enforcement procedures.
Some improved enforcement procedures may require legislation by the City Council, Johnson said.
He Said, for example, that he is not sure if the current fire safety code empowers his fire inspectors to close "public gathering" activity immediately in places like theaters and dance halls.
"But we are doing some homework this weekend to see if there is such authority," he said. If his legal advisers say no such authority exists then the fire department is likely to seek it through legislation, he said.
Johnson would not say whether some public school buildings had locked exits, but in an interview he expressed sympathy for school officials who are concerned about keeping thieves and other intruders out of their buildings during school hours.
"I feel for the principal of a school," he said. "He gets kicked in the 'hind parts by some parents if he leaves doors open and lets intruders in, and then he gets kicked by others if he locks the doors and creates a (possible fire hazard) . . . I don't know any easy way out. No amount of legislation is going to alleviate the situation entirely . . . There's got to be a more basic change in soceity, in social attitudes."
The District's fire safety regulations and their meaning are a subject of consideration debate among officials of the Fire Department and the Department of Economic Development. Fire officials say, for example, that businesses like the two-story Cinema Follies Club should be regarded as places of public assembly and thus subject to a building code requirement that "there shall be at least two Class A stairways in the buildings over one story in height." The Cinema Follies building at 37 L st. S.E., had one stairway.
The Cinema Follies was classified as a private club when it ifrst opened two years ago. Last June, the Department of Economic Developement reclassified it as a theater, according to fire department officials but "we were never notified," said one official.
The Department of Economic Development, on the other hand, has been exempting so-called "private clubs" with setaing capacities of fewer than 75 from such requirements. The Cinema Follies theatre has 74 seats.
"They want to enforce building construction and have us just maintain what they approve," complained one fire official yesterday.
The city fire marshal's office has a three-man unit charged with inspecting places of public assembly, a category interpreted to include hotels, motels, restaurants, clubs, theaters, churches, arenas and sports facilities. The same unit also must dispatch an inspector to examine any location in advance of a presidential visit.
Sgt. Willie G. Grimes, who runs the unit, said his staff isn't large enough for its assignment. An executive of one large area movie theater chain agree. "We get inspected right and left in Maryland compared to D.C.," he said.
Grimes also expressed frustration with the enforcement tools available to him. When one of his inspectors finds a fire-related violation of the building code, he can't initiate any enforcement himself, said Grimes. Instead, he has to refer the problem to the Department of Economic Development, and "some referrals sit down there for quite a while," Grimes said.
In the wake of the Cinema Follies fire, several high officials of the D.C. Fire Department criticized other city governments agencies for what they said was lack of concern with fire safety - chiefly the Department of Economic Development, the school system and the Corporation Counsel's Office.
Corporation Counsel John Risher yesterday issued an angry memo delanding his office and calling on its critics to curtail further comment as well as to state that they have been misquoted or were mistaken.