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Last updated: Sat. Nov. 10, 2012 - 06:10 am EDT

Was it an emergency? Or just somebody blowing smoke?

911 call sends fire crew to investigate smoke in a tobacco shop

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City law says it's still legal to light up in a tobacco shop. So why did a 12-year-old girl's 911 call force the Fire Department to investigate that very thing two weeks ago?

The possible answers may not be as obvious as they appear, but this much is clear: Fort Wayne's five-year-old ban on smoking in most public places continues to annoy users and non-users alike in part because of the uncertainties and contradictions exposed by what happened at Riegel's Pipe and Tobacco on Oct. 26.

“Typical hysteria,” said Dennis Hills of the 35-year-old Riegel's Pipe and Tobacco store is the oldest tenant in the Georgetown shopping center on East State Boulevard, whose special cigar promotion attracted larger-than-usual numbers of smokers to his store just as children were arriving for the strip mall's annual Halloween party.

A combustible combination, as it turned out.

Because it is illegal for tobacco stores to solicit or serve minors, Hills didn't hand out candy or participate in other Halloween events. Instead, he cordoned off an eight-foot perimeter around the door, hung “no trick-or-treating” signs on the ropes, then went inside to serve his customers. Business was so good the store was thick with smoke, so Hills opened the door to the pleasant evening air in order to improve ventilation.

And that was that, he thought – until two city firefighters arrived in response to a complaint about a “small amount” of smoke.

“They apologized, but said we would have to close the door or we would have to close the shop, so we closed the door,” Hills said. “I was told a girl coughed as she walked by. But was it the smoke (or something else)?”

“The reaction was over-the-top,” said Frank Bougher, assistant manager of Riegel's, which also has shops downtown and in Covington Plaza, both of which also have smoking lounges. “They were doing something that was perfectly legal.”

Well, yes. And no, according to Deputy Fire Chief Jim Murua, the man most responsible for enforcing the smoking ordinance.

Murua said he doubts anyone told Hills the store would have to close and pointed out that no citation was issued. But he also noted that the law prohibits smoking within 20 feet of doorways, not the eight-foot barrier Hills established. In other words, legal indoor smoke can become illegal outdoor smoke if the wrong person smells it in the wrong place.

But to cigar-smoking attorney John Porter, who was at Riegel's that evening along with at least two cops, that's a distinction that would shame even a lawyer.

“As sensitive as I am to the public health, the law clearly permits people to smoke (at tobacco shops),” he said. “A business would be charged with making a false 911 report. It's outrageous.”

To give the anonymous girl the benefit of the doubt, Murua said calls about possible smoking-ordinance violations often go to the Fire Department or the city's non-emergency 311 line. But because this call was placed on a Friday evening, both were closed. And the truck that responded to the complaint was already at Georgetown to participate in the party, so the expense and affect on readiness were minimal.

But what about next time?

Murua is right to find irony in the fact that the smokers opened the door to clean the air, but there is also irony in the fact that the smoke at Riegel's was so thick in the first place. When the law made even bars off-limits, tobacco shops became one of the few remaining refuges for smoking adults. And here's yet another irony: If somebody had been smoking near those trick-or-treaters in Georgetown's parking lot, it would have been OK no matter where the smoke blew.

Hills said he'll consider installing an air filter to minimize the amount of smoke in the store. But that could cost thousands of dollars, and if the vent is within 20 feet of the door it may not meet the letter of the law as Murua interprets it.

The Fire Department gets questionable calls all the time, and Murua said it must investigate them all. But people also have an obligation to know and respect the law (I suspect an adult persuaded that girl into calling 911), and smokers and non-smokers alike have an obligation to treat tax dollars and each other with respect.

Hills, for example, said he would have been happy to close the door that night if anyone had simply asked – just as people irritated by the smoke (in more ways than one) could have given his door a wider berth. This was no emergency, and only the uninformed or indifferent would have treated it as such.

Next Halloween, Hills will avoid trouble by closing the store before the festivities begin and the kids arrive. But when the store is open, he said, the door may be, too.

Whether that constitutes warning or an incitement is up to you.

kleininger@news-sentinel.com


This column is the commentary of the writer and does not necessarily reflect the views or opinions of The News-Sentinel. E-mail Kevin Leininger at kleininger@news-sentinel.com, or call him at 461-8355.


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