Capacity limits and safety in San Francisco and elsewhere

Yes, this article is a bit old, but it’s still pretty timely.

This blog entry on describes the enforcement–or lack thereof–regarding posted capacity limits at bars in the Mission area of San Francisco, CA. Specifically, bars with a posted capacity limit of 49 are in effect unregulated, and often have double or even triple that many people inside at once. From the article:

No one monitors bars with a stated maximum capacity of 49 on a regular basis. The Fire Department is the only city agency that monitors maximum capacity, and it only sends an inspector or a battalion chief to these bars if someone calls to complain. So bars regularly pack in as many people as come to the door.

Let’s look at this. Why 49? Well, the answer may well lie within the International Code Commission’s International Building Code (commonly referred to as the IBC), specifically in section 303.1.2:

303.1.2 Small assembly spaces.

The following rooms and spaces shall not be classified as
Assembly occupancies:

1. A room or space used for assembly purposes with an
occupant load of less than 50 persons and accessory to
another occupancy shall be classified as a Group B occupancy
or as part of that occupancy.

2. A room or space used for assembly purposes that is less
than 750 square feet (70 m²) in area and accessory to
another occupancy shall be classified as a Group B occupancy
or as part of that occupancy.

Okay, so a space for less than 50 people (thus the limit of 49) automatically gets classified as a group B occupancy (which is the same class that is assigned to most businesses not otherwise excluded (post offices, dry cleaners, banks, barber/beauty shops just to name a few). The reality is that most bars should in fact be regulated as a group A-2 and should not be getting a free pass from inspection when they don’t apply for a higher capacity permit.

San Francisco is choosing, however, to not do any follow-up inspections of these venues after they open, thus making the “Maximum Occupancy 49” sign have little real meaning. Another part of the problem is that a lot of bars don’t qualify for a higher occupancy limit because they only have one exit. The city is assuming that the bar owners will never have that big of a crowd, because they lack a permit for a higher occupancy, when in fact exactly the opposite is happening: the bar owners are not getting the permits, either because the facilities are not up to standard or because of added expense, and packing the people in anyway.

Allowing bars to pack double the legal occupancy limit into their space is dangerous and short-sighted. Does it really take disasters such as the Kiss nightclub fire in Brazil and the fire at The Station nightclub in Rhode Island to make it clear just how dangerous it is to exceed the capacity limits? The limit in the IBC, and thus in the laws in cities that have adopted the IBC as a building code, is not like the highway speed limits set for a revenue-based “speed trap.” The limit is there for safety and to ignore it is asking for disaster, sooner or later.

(I will be revisiting this topic at a later date in 2013 or early 2014 in 2016 May.)