Fires Renew Debate Over Sprinklers in Homes
Three apartment fires that displaced more than 40 Greenville County residents in three weeks have sharpened the focus on which buildings ought to have sprinklers.
Mandatory sprinkler installation has gradually spread in the state but has fallen short in some building types of what fire officials say is needed to save lives.
The legislative battle has shifted from hotels to single-family homes, which accounted for 97 of the 203 fatalities between 2008 and September this year, according to the state fire marshal.
Mobile homes had 59 fire fatalities, while 12 people died in apartments and 10 were killed in duplexes. No fatalities have been reported at hotels and motels since they were broken into their own category in 2009.
Advocates argued that sprinklers limit damage and pay for themselves through insurance savings. Opponents of sprinkler mandates said the systems raise home prices and that smoke alarms are sufficient to save most lives.
Six guests died in 2004 while trying to escape the black, suffocating smoke that survivors recall filling the third floor of the Comfort Inn, a Greenville hotel that did not have sprinklers at the time.
Proposed legislation that would have required all state hotels to have sprinklers, even if it meant a retrofit, fell to Lowcountry concerns that it would be unfair to historic building owners.
“What they were saying if you read between the lines is ‘we don’t want to shell out the money for it,’” said Gary Mocarski, president of the South Carolina Fire Marshals Association. Lawmakers are now focusing on whether the state should embrace a building code that would require sprinklers for all new single-family homes and duplexes. Combatants expect the fight to continue for the next three years.
None of the county apartment buildings that have burned since Nov. 24 had sprinklers and were built before codes required them, fire chiefs said. Sprinklers could have contained damage in two of the fires in Berea and on the Eastside, while they probably wouldn’t have made a difference in a smaller fire in Gantt, chiefs said.
With the defeat of the hotel bill, no serious effort has been made to require that apartments be retrofitted with sprinklers, Mocarski said.
Retrofits would run about $1.50-$2.50 per square foot, partly depending on whether the building had exposed ceilings, said Paul Hensley, who owns Advanced Fire Protection in Travelers Rest.
“If it’s not required, people aren’t going to spend money to do it,” he said. “And you can’t blame them.”
Whether an apartment or hotel is required to have sprinklers depends on a variety of factors, including when it was built, square footage and number of floors. Many buildings that do not have sprinklers must get them if they undergo a major renovation or are rebuilt due to heavy damage.
The largest of the three recent apartment fires is believed to have started when spilled chemicals in a balcony storage closet reacted with each other at Ashton Woods on Pelham Road, Boiling Springs Fire Chief Steve Graham said.
“Sprinklers would have been very effective in stopping this fire,” he said.
In a similar fire at a nearby complex, fire breached a sliding glass door, but a sprinkler head in the living room reached the blaze on the balcony before firefighters arrived, Graham said.
While no serious injuries or deaths were reported in the three recent apartment fires, the American Red Cross of Upstate South Carolina said it spent thousands helping residents recover. A concert Tuesday at Thornblade Country Club will benefit victims of the AshtonWoods fire.
If a building has sprinklers, residents and guests should be able to see the sprinkler heads sticking out of the ceilings and walls. Hotels in the state that do not have sprinklers are supposed to have a sign by the registration desk notifying guests.
Heat triggers the sprinklers, but it isn’t like the movies where they all go off at once, soaking an entire building. The sprinklers closest to the fire are the only ones to activate, advocates said.
A code adopted by the state Building Codes Council would have required sprinklers in new singlefamilyhomesand duplexes as early as next month. The code came under attack from home builders, and legislation passed this year will keep the mandate out of law until at least 2014.
Mark Nix, executive director of the Home Builders Association of South Carolina, said it would be impossible to comply with the proposed code because fewer than a dozen companies statewide would be certified for the work.
“The sprinkler industry would make well over $100 million on this,” he said.
Estimates on the cost of installing sprinklers differ.
Hensley, the incoming president of the South Carolina Fire Sprinkler Association, said sprinklers can be installed for as little as $1.50 a square foot if they are going into the homes of a large, new subdivision.
“That’s probably half of what the carpet would cost,” he said.
Custom jobs can be more expensive, Hensley said. So are homes that depend on wells because a small water tank has to be installed, he said.
Nix said a more realistic cost is $4 to $6 per square foot, raising the price of a new, 1,800-square-foot home by about $9,000.
The question, he said, is how to make sprinklers affordable. A solution could lie in helping plumbers get certified to install sprinklers, Nix said. Without certification, they can’t buy liability insurance- a major barrier to their entry into the market, he said
“If it’s not required, people aren’t going to spend money to do it.”
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