Nightclub fires 'just waiting to happen'

Overcrowding is a grave concern because some club managers do not get the seriousness of the problem, says Central police officer

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 06 February, 2013, 12:00am
UPDATED : Wednesday, 06 February, 2013, 5:48am

After 235 people died in a nightclub blaze in Brazil last month, Hong Kong police have warned that overcrowding in the city's major nightspots could result in a similar tragedy here.

Chief Inspector Paul Edmiston, the district operations officer for Central, said last week that nightclub managers continually flout licensing laws by letting too many people into their premises every weekend.

"It's an accident waiting to happen. Some nightclub managers don't seem to get the seriousness of overcrowding, but they will do if it leads to panic and death," he said.

Police in Central have good rapport with nightclub managers, Edmiston said, but it was common practice for clubs to let in too many customers because that was the only way to keep many of their businesses afloat.

"The rents you pay in and around Lan Kwai Fong are astronomical. Some places will be letting in more than they should, because they have to," Edmiston said.

"Some feel they have to break the law to break even," he said.

Police and the Fire Services Department work in tandem to implement liquor licensing regulations. In some instances police have found that fire escapes have been blocked, and ask the Fire Services to investigate further.

However, Fire Services manpower can be stretched, which means they may not get to check the premises until the next day, when no one is there and the fire exits have been cleared.

The rents you pay in Lan Kwai Fong are astronomical. Some places will be letting in more people than they should, because they have to

Similarly, police checks on the city's most popular nightclubs are not as regular at weekends, when police must work during the day to keep order at public events.

Fire Services said they regularly conduct inspections of licensed and registered premises.

In 2012, a total of 42,573 inspections of licensed and registered premises were carried out, with 1,044 fire hazard abatement notices issued - asking owners to make improvements - and 59 prosecutions made.

If a bar or nightclub is on the first floor or above, or in a basement - anywhere but the ground level - the Liquor Licensing Board will liaise with the Building Department and issue a capacity limit determined by the size of the establishment.

During a licensing visit, police will divide a room into sections and count the people in each section, or empty the premises and count each customer as they come out.

Police have copies of each establishment's liquor licence, so they know the capacity limit.

The South China Morning Post visited three nightclubs in Lan Kwai Fong last weekend.

All their fire escapes were clear and their emergency exit signs were easy to spot.

Each establishment was full of customers. The busiest was Magnum, in Wellington Street, which had a long queue outside on Saturday night.

Volar nightclub on D'Aguilar Street has 15 tables that can be pre-booked - two tables seat 15 people each while the rest seat 10.

Volar general manager Bhoj Gurung said reserving tables helps, but overcrowding can still happen. "Sometimes it is hard to control [crowd numbers], but you can tell by how many are in the club that too many have been let in. We give priority to those who have pre-booked and just stop others from getting in at the door," he said.

Levels nightclub at On Hing Terrace has 30 tables that can be reserved and seat 10-15 guests each. Each table has a minimum spend of HK$8,000 per table.

"For us it's the quality of the customer that matters rather than the quantity," Levels' director of marketing and business development RJ Hirachan said.

"It also means we can keep a better eye on how many customers we have," he said.

The fire in Brazil on January 27 spread quickly and many of the patrons died from inhaling the poisonous smoke created by the burning soundproofing foam.