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Fire safety officials zero in on code violators in wake of major hotel fires

With Christmas shopping drawing the annual throngs to department stores across the United States, fire department officials and safety experts are zeroing in what many say are widespread fire code violations -- from blocked aisles to bolted exits.

Here in New York City, an unprecedented Christmas crackdown on such violations has begun. Already, fire inspectors have found violations in 37 or 58 stores checked, including a few in the very biggest and most established stores. If violations continue, the stores will be shut down, Fire Commissioner Charles J. Hynes says.

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The high number of violations found in New York City is indicative of the situation nationally, says Allan Stephens, a public buildings safety official with the US Fire Administration. "It's very widespread," he says. "And it happens across the country. I think department stores realie what they are doing in most cases. I't's just a question of priorities. If you're in merchandizing, selling is your No. 1 priority."

The heightened concern about fire code violations is linked the hotel fires in Las Vegas, Nev., and Harrison, N.Y., in the past two weeks, although investigators probing those fires have as yet found no conclusive evidence that safety laws were violated.

Though many fire safety experts say it is urgent to expand fire safety codes, others believe hundreds of lives would be saved each year if only existing codes were adhered to.

"It's not the codes, it's the way they are enforced," says Betsy Weaver of the International Association of Fire Chiefs.

Miss Weaver is in the midst of a 15-month study for the US Fire Administration on the enforcement of fire safety codes across the country. The study, she says, will set up new guidelines for code enforcement. One of the most important things her findings thus far show is that "a lot of the responsibility for enforcing the codes has to be on the fire services," rather than on the owners of stores, office buildings, or apartment houses.

She also says:

* Fire departments must pursue violations aggressively. The most aggressive ones are the most effective in preventing fires and saving lives although this might temporarily bite into a business's profit picture.

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* Many more fire departments need more code enforcement power. Often, she has found, the ultimate fire protection responsibility is left to the state fire marshal whose relatively small staff can't do the job.

* "There's a big lack of uniformity of codes throughout the United States." There needs to be more uniformity, and more has to be done to place old buildings under new codes despite the costs, Miss Weaver asserts.

Mr. Stephens of the US Fire Administration says, "Fortunately, most stores in this country have automatic sprinkles," deemed by many safty experts to be the best way to keep fire from spreading.

Fire safety people say that stores, distracted by the desire for huge sales at Christmas, may get careless about observing safety rules. Stephens, speaking from his 30 years in the fire service, says: "You have to fight them all the time to make sure the exit aisles are the proper width."

And other experts say it is necessary to constantly make sure exits are not blocked, or even locked.

Jan Aaron of the National Retail Merchants Association, which represents some 35,000 sotres, says: "Most stores are superbly careful" in their adherence to fire safety codes. "But the shopper has responsibilities, too." For example, she says, many customers ignore no-smoking signs.

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