COLUMBIA -- Fire officials are trying to build support for a bill requiring that all commercial buildings have sprinklers to prevent the type of blaze that killed nine Charleston firefighters last year.
"This will be a significant milestone in South Carolina should this bill become law," said Robert Stevenson of Greenwood, representing the S.C. State Association of Fire Chiefs, during Wednesday's hearing of the S.C. Senate Banking and Insurance Committee.
"We don't want the deaths of nine brothers to be in vain."
The bill would require sprinklers in all commercial and industrial buildings, no matter the age.
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The issue of mandating sprinklers could force a showdown between two of the Senate's most powerful lawmakers.
About two dozen uniformed fire chiefs and other fire officials from across the state packed Wednesday's hearing, sponsored by Sen. David Thomas, R-Green- ville, the banking and insurance committee chairman.
Several who spoke said Thomas' bill should be expanded to include requiring or providing incentives for sprinklers in homes, where most fatal fires occur.
Columbia Fire Chief Bradley Anderson told the committee that a study by his department found sprinklers would have saved 55 people who died in residential fires in the Columbia area from 1991 through 2002.
Sprinklers likely would have prevented injuries to 246 firefighters and an estimated $56 million in property losses during that same period, he said.
"This is a significant impact," Anderson said.
The issue of fire sprinklers in homes has taken on heightened urgency since the Oct. 28 fire at a house in Ocean Isle Beach, N.C., that killed six University of South students and one from Clemson. The house had working smoke detectors but no fire sprinklers.
Generally, most older commercial buildings statewide are exempt from building code requirements to install fire sprinklers. Homes, whether new or old, typically aren't required to have them.
Several speakers at Wednesday's hearing pointed out that sprinklers aren't required in vacation homes such as the one in Ocean Isle Beach.
Thomas first proposed his bill (S. 921) after the June 18 blaze at the Sofa Super Store in Charleston, the nation's worst firefighter tragedy since the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks on New York City. The furniture store didn't have fire sprinklers, nor was it required to under existing state law.
Thomas' bill is at odds with another pre-filed bill (S. 860) sponsored by Senate President Pro Tem Glenn McConnell of Charleston. McConnell, chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, is a member of Thomas' committee.
McConnell opposes mandating sprinklers for commercial or industrial buildings that don't have them, though, like Thomas, he supports income tax credits and insurance premium incentives to help pay for them.
The two sparred in 2004 over an unsuccessful bill supported by Thomas after a Greenville hotel fire that killed six. It would have required sprinklers in hotels and motels that didn't have them.
Their disagreements didn't surface at Wednesday's hearing, though it wasn't lost on some fire officials.
"The lessons are over; it's time for action," said Gary Mocarski, second vice president of the S.C. Fire Marshals Association. "Gentlemen, please do it right this time."
Top officials with the state's municipal and hospitality associations recently told The State their groups support tax credits, though they oppose requiring sprinklers in all commercial buildings.
Thomas seemed willing to consider solutions during Wednesday's hearing. He suggested, for example, that university and college presidents statewide could be questioned about whether their student dorms have fire sprinklers.
"There are all kinds of options open that won't necessarily take us into mandates for retrofitting for everything in South Carolina," he said.
Thomas said he would support eliminating higher-than-actual-cost fees charged by water providers for fire sprinklers. Those fees can reach tens of thousands of dollars depending on the municipality.
"I see it as a gimmick for them to make money," he said.