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Oxford Fire Department enforces occupancy load checks

Alex Edwards

The overcrowding in bars, restaurants and hotels during the University of Mississippi football season has the Oxford Fire Department concerned about the city breaking fire codes.
The OFD serves approximately 19,000 Oxford residents and 14,000 Ole Miss students on campus, according to Oxford’s website.
Fire Chief Mike Hill said the department has been conducting occupancy load checks on various locations.
“We’ve been doing occupancy load checks recently, and obviously you don’t want to overcrowd because that’s how people get killed,” he said. “Businesses and mercantile have a large group of people that assemble there, so they have a chance for a large loss of life.”
Every business, assembly or mercantile has a certain number of people that can be in there at once, which is known as an occupancy load and is determined by the fire department.
Hill said there is a difference between occupancy load checks and fire code inspections.
“We do fire code inspections once a year, where we go into businesses and look at their electrical wall coverings and make sure their sprinkler systems are up to date,” he said. “I don’t go into a place and decide how many people can be in there; it’s all based on math. You measure your business and how big it is and how many net square feet you have in that space, and you divide by a predetermined number in our code books.”
An event that changed fire code and occupancy laws was the 2003 Rhode Island fire at the Station nightclub. The fire was the fourth deadliest nightclub fire in American history, killing 100 people, according to the Providence Journal. In five minutes, the club was destroyed by flames. Out of 462 people in attendance, many were injured from smoke inhalation, burns and trampling.
“The thing about that fire is that they had the right number of exits, but they didn’t have a sprinkler system, which could have kept the fire down while people got out safer,” Hill said. “People weren’t worried about fire extinguishers or fighting the fire, they were just trying to get out alive, and that is why overcrowding beyond occupancy can cause loss of life.”
Hill said he passes a recording of the fire to bar owners on the Square as proof of what a fire can do and how much damage can occur if businesses don’t follow occupancy code.
Entrepreneurs looking to build a new restaurant and calculate the occupant load at 100 people or more must include sprinklers because of the Rhode Island fire.
“Restaurants can be busy or at their occupant load, but if you can’t move two or three feet in any direction when you need to, then you need to go somewhere else,” Hill said.
Soulshine Pizza has seen overcrowding problems as many restaurants on the Square face during busy game weekends.
“I’ve definitely lost some business due to occupancy loads,” Soulshine owner Steven Ash said.
The maximum occupancy on the inside of the restaurant is 138 and 44 on the outside patio. However, the numbers can change because Soulshine can remove all the tables and chairs and have up to 295 people on the inside and 95 people on the outside.
“I used to have problems with occupancy when I was at the University Club because they do a lot of banquets, formals, weddings, plus dinner service at the same time,” Ash said. “Occupancy always varies. The University Club had extra doors, and you can have more people in there if you have several different exits.”
Ash said game weekends are the worst in terms of overcrowding.
“Gameday weekends are miserable,” he said. “I have almost enough seats to reach the maximum occupancy, but if people come in and we’re on a wait, then most customers have to wait outside. I only have room for an extra 10 or 15 people to stand inside; the others have to wait on the sidewalk.” Another problem with occupancy loads is on campus in the dorms. Garrett Rigby, a senior liberal studies major, said Ole Miss Housing takes fire codes and occupancy very seriously.
Rigby is a resident assistant for Guess Hall, a coed dorm. There are three RAs per side, one for each floor.
The occupancy rule for a basic dorm room in Guess is six people maximum.
“There are protective screens over the doors; if those are removed there’s a heavy fine for that, if the fire extinguishers seemed to be used the entire floor will be fined,” Rigby said.
“The thing about being an RA is that we get to know most of the residents, and so over the weekend there was a group of about five or six guys I didn’t recognize that had come in to stay with one of our residents for the Alabama game.”
When that happens, RAs can revoke the guest’s ability to ever come back. The resident would automatically be documented and can lose visitation rights, Rigby said.
Residents are allowed to have visitors and overnight guests, but only if they fill out the proper paperwork beforehand.
“I can’t even begin to stress to students how important it is to not go into a bar or restaurant that’s packed or overcrowded,” Hill said. “If something does happen, you’re not going to have time to get out.”