In issues that deal with the safety of people, it’s wise to err on the side of caution.
That’s why Columbus Fire Chief Dave Allmon’s decision to not allow the Crump Theatre to reopen is a good one.
The 125-year-old theater in downtown Columbus has multiple safety hazards: No sprinkler system, no functioning fire escapes, a stage floor that doesn’t meet current structural codes, water damage to the mechanical room, no ventilation, no fire curtain.
These deficiencies were brought to light by architectural firm Jones & Phillips in its study of the theater, the purpose of which was to explore options for renovating it or tearing down and starting over.
Columbus Capital Foundation, owner of the Crump, had planned to reopen the theater this month, just like after previous winter shutdowns, even after the consultant’s study was released March 24. The theater had hosted events despite the deficiencies because of an Indiana law that allows the theater to operate according to 1941 building codes.
Buildings only have to be brought up to code if renovations requiring a building permit are performed, the law says. Because the only improvements made at the Crump over the years — newer heating and cooling systems, different seating arrangements and some electrical work — did not require building permits, the theater could operate under 73-year-old building codes.
The law was created to protect those who own and operate historic buildings. It’s understandable that operators of these buildings worry about modern codes altering their historical significance, not to mention the sometimes high cost of updating the structures. However, it’s important to remember that patrons want to be assured of their safety during visits.
A current Indiana code provision also allows an existing building, such as the Crump, to be used for a public event as long as the local jurisdiction takes reasonable steps to prevent fire, explosion or panic to break out. That allowed Columbus Fire Department to station one or two firefighters at previous events as a safety measure. But what if firefighters are unable to evacuate people from the Crump should fire break out? Allmon is no longer certain his staff can reliably avert such emergencies if they were to occur at the Crump, resulting in his decision this week.
State lawmakers should use the Crump’s situation as an opportunity to revisit these laws and their intentions while considering public safety.
While it’s unfortunate the Crump likely will remain closed for the foreseeable future, the safety problems that are keeping it closed would have to be addressed in any of the renovation options presented by the consultant are pursued.
The study process has been about identifying best options for future use of the Crump. Continuing to operate under safety risks shouldn’t be one of them.