As the temperature drops in the fall and into winter, fire departments on Long Island and elsewhere are trying to help restaurants and other businesses remain open outside while ensuring a safe environment for customers.
“The town has gone above and beyond and continues to try to accommodate those businesses to keep them open or get them open, to increase their occupancy load,” said Brookhaven Town Chief Fire Marshal Chris Mehrman. “We have to balance between safety and allowing businesses to operate.”
The fire marshals have been busy, as they try to educate business owners about the safest way to run heaters, as well as to prepare for the coming winter.
Some business owners who don’t typically have outdoor seating or who aren’t aware of the rules regarding heaters and tents have found the rules difficult, particularly amid the strains caused by the pandemic.
As examples, portable heaters are prohibited within five feet of any building and within five feet of any exit or exit discharges. They are also not allowed on any exterior balconies or within any tent, canopy or other membrane structure.
Some business owners “thought they could just do what they needed to do,” Mehrman said. “People don’t realize there are codes and standards that we need to enforce.”
Although there’s no cost, business owners need to understand the process.
“The town has gone to great lengths to make sure they get these COVID-19 accommodations for outdoor dining,” Mehrman said.
The fire department has been working with business owners to help them meet code and permit requirements.
Fire marshals are sometimes taking steps out of order. Merhman said they have arrived at sites and conducted inspections. Even though the business may not have permits, the fire marshals conduct inspections to see if a tent can remain where it is legally.
The marshals have told business owners to submit their application immediately and to obtain an engineer’s certification, so the marshals can legalize the installation.
The town department has streamlined the process. At the same time, fire marshals have focused on the next step in the march towards winter: snow.
While tents offer opportunities to expand restaurants and bars into outdoor space, they need to be able to handle the additional weight.
“We have to ensure that the tents are going to withstand the snow loads,” Mehrman said.
On a small number of occasions, fire marshals have had to order tents down, either because they were improperly installed or because they were not going to be able to meet the state code.
Putting tents up on decks against buildings is a violation of the state code. Businesses have to have a permit for an addition to a building.
Businesses have also improperly used heaters and were ordered to remove them.
“Thankfully, everybody is complying,” Mehrman said. In some cases, the fire marshals need to convince the managers or owners, but marshals are reluctant to issue court appearance tickets.
“We want to achieve compliance, but we want to do it in an appropriate manner,” Mehrman said.
The fire marshals have been checking and rechecking on sites, to ensure safety and compliance.
To accommodate and streamline the process for outdoor dining, the town has created a COVID-19 Dining Accommodation permitting process. The town is offering a one-stop location to submit paperwork for the accommodations, which includes putting up tents.
Residents who have questions about tents, heaters or fire codes can reach out to the marshals at (631) 451-6262 or by email at [email protected]
Mehrman said residents who read the documentation on the web site, fill out the application appropriately and submit it electronically could probably complete the process within a couple of days.