Fire code exempts individually constructed boardwalk stands from having a suppression system.
SEASIDE HEIGHTS, N.J. -- As Michael Carbone Sr. watched the massive Seaside, N.J., fire barrel through three blocks toward his popular nightspot on the boardwalk, he thought the worst.
"I see my building go up in flames. I tell my wife, 'I lost the bar,' but the next thing I know, the fire was out," Carbone, owner of the Beachcomber Bar and Grill, said Wednesday.
A fire sprinkler system that had been installed at the Beachcomber about a year ago saved Carbone's Seaside Heights, N.J., business. Sprinklers also are credited with saving Seaside Park's Sawmill Cafe.
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But that doesn't mean that other boardwalk businesses will be required to install sprinkler systems when they rebuild after the Sept. 12 fire.
The way the fire code is currently structured, if the boardwalk businesses were all built as a mini strip mall, the buildings would have to have fire suppression systems, said Dave Kurasz, executive director of the New Jersey Fire Sprinkler Advisory Board.
But since boardwalk businesses are largely individually built stands, they can get around a suppression system other than small kitchen items such as a stove hood, Kurasz said. Often, designers plan around sprinklers by adding, for example, more exits or making other changes in lieu of a system, he said.
"I don't want to say it's a loophole. It's not like people are trying to get out of it, but it's just the weird way things are being rebuilt," he said.
The advisory board already is hoping to talk to New Jersey officials about some changes in the fire code after this blaze, such as including an area's risk and lowering the square footage or occupancy loads to cover more businesses, Kurasz said.
The Sept. 12 blaze destroyed some 60 businesses on five blocks of the boardwalk, including those next door to the Beachcomber. The cause of the fire was because of an electrical malfunction. The wiring under Kohr's Frozen Custard and Biscayne Candies had sustained damage from sand and salt water during Superstorm Sandy. A section of the destroyed boardwalk had been rebuilt after Sandy.
Seaside Heights' construction officials said coming in compliance with modern fire code is only required after a major renovation, like the Beachcomber had in 2012.
"If we passed a code today that you're allowed to change your plumbing a certain way, we can't go into your building and say rip everything apart and put it back together this way because they just passed a code," said Ken Roberts, the code enforcement officer.
Michael Carbone Jr., who manages his father's bar and grill, said the Beachcomber only added its sprinkler system because of a mandate when they renovated apartment space to add a bar and deck on the second floor in the summer of 2012.
"It's really expensive to put a sprinkler system in of this size, and you never expect something like this," he said, as he observed the fire's devastation from the bar patio. "Seeing all this is heartbreaking. I know I'm incredibly lucky to have even this damage on the second floor."
In talking with some other business owners, Carbone Jr. said he learned a number of people had sprinklers in their basements only.
In the Beachcomber's case, the fire jumped over it to destroy Big Hearted John's on its northern side and then swept back onto its second floor, Carbone Jr. said. Still, after less than two weeks of inspectors, insurance adjusters and workers filtering in and out since the fire, the Beachcomber is planning a Friday reopening.
Kurasz said when he first walked the length of the fire's mess, he assumed firefighters stopped it at the Beachcomber, until he saw Big Hearted John's.
A fire sprinkler system knocks down the heat level and buys time for firefighters, Kurasz said.
For example, Sawmill's sprinklers, added after a 2009 fire, threw a curtain of water out at the blaze and down to wet the structure at a rate of about 14 to 30 gallons per minute, he said.
"Anywhere between 10 and 20 feet is where that fire was, and that structure still stands and it still stands only because of the fire sprinklers on the outside wall," he said.
In Seaside Heights, there are more businesses on the boardwalk that don't have sprinkler systems than those that do, said construction official Chuck Lasky.
"I wouldn't call them fire hazards. I would say that they're an existing structure that had been built to existing code at the time they were built," he said of the boardwalk businesses.
The borough was careful after Sandy to ensure every property had a licensed electrician certifying it before it got its main power back on, Roberts said. He added that fire inspections are done by the state of New Jersey annually to make sure anything existing, such as an alarm system, fire extinguishers, or emergency lights, is maintained.
New structures will have to be built to code and so will be more fire safe, even without sprinkler systems, but those systems are the only proactive safety measure, while things such as smoke detectors and warning strobes are reactive, Kurasz said.
A fire sprinkler system, though some consider it costly, would mean an insurance break that could ease the initial cost and, like was seen in the Sept. 12 fire, might save in the long run, he said.
"The trade-off is well worth it, that's for sure," Kurasz said.
Contributing: Anthony Panissidi, Asbury Park (N.J.) Press