AT WAR WITH FIRE OFFICIALS

I’m not sure who declared it—or why.  No lives were lost, but it took its toll on me and accelerated my aging process dramatically.

It was February for sure and I think it was 1986.  I was at the Pasadena Convention Center with our small consumer woodworking show.  It was our second or third show in Pasadena.

The show had 100 or so exhibitors and attracted about 8,000 to 10,000 visitors who wanted to see all the small tools and gadgets to make woodworking easier and more fun.

The show opened on Friday at noon with a typical light crowd.  The meat of the crowd didn’t usually show up till after 5pm.

Now it was about 3pm or so and the local Pasadena Fire Marshal came storming into the office right off the exhibit floor to tell me “he was closing the show.”  To answer my pleading “Why?,” he said, “There’s a law against visitors being next to operating machinery.”

“What are you talking about?”  I agitatedly asked.  “That’s nonsense, there is no such law.”  Now, at that point, we had done shows in Los Angeles, Orange County, and even in Pasadena and never heard anything like that before.

He was unmoved and told me he didn’t have to show me the actual law.  He was closing the show—and he did.

If I never felt panic before, I certainly did now.  He got on the PA system and announced the closure and told all the visitors they had to leave.

That’s when the onslaught of exhibitors came crowding into our office area wanting to know what was going on and threatening to sue or lynch me.

I called a lawyer, who told me a fire marshal or a policeman can’t carry a law library with them and there wasn’t much we could do to countermand his order.  We could go to court next week, but that wouldn’t solve the immediate problem.

You may recall my blog on 2-22-17 and one of the “Three Experiences That Changed My Life” was the Phoenix Fire Marshal wanting to close the Arizona Home Beautiful Show.  I was able to get him to waive his order by opening up the stands in the coliseum so people could sit and watch the Dancing Water Show.

That was my first encounter with an arbitrary fire marshal, but he was a lot easier to deal with.  This second encounter in Pasadena was a lot more difficult.

I put a call in for the convention center manager, but he was nowhere to be found.  I told the exhibitors we would have a meeting Saturday morning before the show opened at 10am.  At that point, I didn’t have the slightest clue what I was going to tell them.

Friday evening was a gut-wrenching, tension-filled couple of hours.  Not sure I slept much at all.  Very early Saturday morning I finally connected with the convention center manager, who told me he had been aware of the situation, had talked to the fire chief and had a compromise solution to offer.

If we had each exhibitor with operating machinery set up some kind of barrier to keep visitors at least three feet away from the machinery, the fire marshal would allow us to open the show.

We got a lot of short pipe and drape and were able to keep our show attendees three feet or more away from the machinery.  It wasn’t pretty and the visitors wanted to get up as close as possible but at least we got the show opened.

That wasn’t quite the end of it, however.  I was issued a summons to appear in court for “obstructing the order of a fire marshal.”

The eventual outcome was dismissal of the charges if I paid about $3,500 in court costs, plus about $5,000 in lawyer fees.  What’s a few more gray hairs?

Some months later we were at the Long Beach Convention Center doing another woodworking show and here comes the fire marshal.  I groaned and said, “Here we go again!”

He told me he was thinking of closing the show because we had very crowded aisles and he heard I was likely to cause trouble.  I guess he and the guy in Pasadena were buddies.

After an hour or so of negotiations with the convention center manager and the fire marshal, we convinced him there was no real problem and he could go home for the weekend.

Then there was Cincinnati, where the fire marshal insisted we put turnstiles at the entrance so he could count the number of people entering.  The inference of course was that at some point he would close off new entrants.

He didn’t think he would stand there himself but come by every so often to check.  If that wasn’t bad enough, the real kicker was he had no turnstiles to count the number of people leaving the show.  Another fiasco!

About 1987 we moved our much larger woodworking machinery show from L.A. to the Anaheim Convention Center and everything seemed to work out quite well.

Right before our second show in 1989, the fire department asked for a meeting with us and the center management.  They said they wanted a form from all the exhibitors who had operating machinery as well as a $30 fee to cover their administration.

Now we had about 800 exhibitors in this show for the trade and trying to alert out exhibitors and have them comply at this late date seemed to be difficult, at best.

Most important of all, would the form or the fee make anything safer or less harmful.  No answer!  So we distributed the forms and we paid the fee.

Truth be told, our shows, which included demonstrations of operating machinery, were a bit of a puzzle to fire officials.  There were no standard procedures and they just didn’t know what to do.

This was not a war we wanted or enjoyed.

Producing trade and consumer shows was a fun and exciting business much like the definition an Air Force pilot told me about flying the first jet fighters; “Hours of boredom, punctuated by moments of shark terror.”

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