Editor’s note: This story is one in a series featuring parts of the new, two-year state budget that affect Central Minnesotans.
Former St. Cloud fire marshal and state Sen. Jeff Howe, R-Rockville, went to a wedding a few years ago in a converted barn and told his wife they would have to find a seat by the exit.
“I said, ‘I want to make sure, if something happens, you and I can get out of here,'” Howe remembered telling his wife. “There was no emergency lighting, no exit lights, no panic hardware on the doors, no fire alarm, no sprinklers, nothing.”
Fire sprinklers are now required in wedding barns and other places of public accommodation, but only if the occupancy of the space is 300 people or more and the facility was built or altered after July 2008.
The law change was included in the omnibus jobs and labor bill in the new state budget that took effect late June.
Other wedding barn regulations proposed by Howe in the past, including a requirement for fire inspections, were not on the table this year. And a push to require sprinklers at smaller venues that accommodate 250 people was nixed.
“It took an occupant load from 250 and made it 300 before sprinklers are required. So it gave these places that were out there already an out from having to put in sprinkler systems,” said Howe, who has worked for more than 30 years in code development and enforcement. “It was a response to a group of existing wedding barns to let them continue to operate without installing sprinkler systems.”
Installing those systems would be expensive for venues. And there hasn’t been an incident with injury or death to spur reforms.
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A lot of wedding barns are not in code-enforced areas, so they’re not inspected, Howe said. Many were built before 1965 to hold animals and hay, not large groups of dancing people.
A roof collapse at an Ottertail water park in 2015 revealed that many communities outside the metro don’t enforce Minnesota State Building Code, and they aren’t required to. No one was hurt in that incident.
St. Joseph’s Rolling Ridge Wedding & Event Center is in a code-enforced area and is complaint with sprinklers, Howe said. “You have unequal enforcement out there.”
Howe said he doesn’t want to see a preventable tragedy take place, but timing on future proposals is critical.
These wedding venues are trying to come out of the COVID-19 shut down and need to get back on their feet, he said.
Nora Hertel is the government watchdog reporter for the St. Cloud Times. Reach her at 320-255-8746 or email@example.com. Follow her on Twitter @nghertel.
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