This memorandum merges two previous electronic communications issued by my office in the past two weeks relative to a recent decision of the Commonwealth's Sprinkler Appeals Board. The Board has appellate jurisdiction to hear appeals relative to determinations of heads of fire departments under the provisions of the new enhanced sprinkler law, M.G.L. c.148, s.26G1/2, and has recently issued an important decision.
In this decision the Board concluded that under certain circumstances, a place of assembly which provides facilities for "organized private dining events" may not necessarily be subject to the retroactive sprinkler installation requirements of M.G.L. c.148, s.26G1/2, notwithstanding the incidental existence of live or recorded music for dancing purposes.
This decision, like any legal determination must be read very carefully. Although this particular case involved a local Knights of Columbus function hall, the case clearly did not create an "automatic exemption" for all function halls. Additionally, the fact that it was a non-profit entity was not taken into consideration in the Board's determination.
The Board explained its determination by stating:
Such "organized" private dining events, by their very nature, have pre-arranged limitations on attendance and seating because a meal is being prepared and served. They tend to have fixed starting and ending times and do not have later than average operating hours. Whether the meal is buffet style or sit-down, each guest has a chair and a table to sit down and eat. The tables and chairs are not positioned as to create ill-defined aisles. Although there may be dancing to live or recorded music during some portion of the event, the entertainment is not the main feature of the event. The dancing activity is limited to those persons who are attending for the purposes of eating a meal. Each guest has a seat at a table. In such situations the occupant load is not typically concentrated or crowded. According to the testimony, the characteristics of such events are within the strict control of an on-site manager and are established by a written agreement.
The Board indicated that under certain conditions these facilities are distinguishable from the "A-2 like" characteristics that the Board concluded (in a memorandum dated 1-10-05) were typical of nightclubs, dancehalls and discotheques and within the legislative intent of the new law.
The Board listed the specific factors that characterized such "organized private dining event" facilities which it determined were not subject to the sprinkler requirements of said section 26G1/2:
- The facility is used for events that feature a meal as the primary attraction.
- The facility is used for events that are organized for the purpose of a private function. Attendance for each specific event is limited and pre-arranged between the facility operator and the private event organizers. The number of guests is limited by written invitation or limited ticket availability and does not exceed the agreed upon attendance limit.
- Each event has a definite starting and ending time.
- Tables and chairs are arranged in well-defined aisles in such a manner to not impede easy egress.
- There are no significantly low lighting levels.
- The maximum documented legal capacity, based upon the available floor space, is not less than 15 feet (net) per occupant. The Board notes that this formula is consistent with the definition of the "unconcentrated" Assembly Occupancy found in 780 CMR, The State Building Code (6 th Edition), table: 780 CMR 1008.1.2.
- The characteristics of the event, as referenced above, are strictly controlled by an on-site manager and are made part of a written function event contract.
Examples of organized private dining events may include organized banquets, private parties, fund raisers, wedding receptions and ceremonial banquet events, as long as all the aforementioned characteristics exist. It is interesting to note that the State of R.I. recently, through a formal interpretation exempted similar "organized dining facilities" from the definition of "nightclub" notwithstanding the existence of a live band.
A copy of the entire determination is attached hereto for you convenience. I suggest that all heads of fire departments and related enforcement personnel review this decision carefully. This determination may have an impact on your determinations as you review the establishments within your jurisdiction that may be subject to the new law.
It is important to note that the Board's decision was conditioned upon the continued use of the building consistent with all of the seven factors. If you determine that a building in your town is currently exempt from the sprinkler law based upon the building's present use as a facility that hosts "organized private dining events" it is suggested that you inform the building owner that your determination is contingent upon the continued use of the building consistent with the seven conditions established by the Board. You should document and retain such communications and determinations in the event future enforcement action is necessary due to a change in building use.
Automatic Sprinker Appeals Board Decision