Buildings lag on sprinkler systems

COLUMBIA -- In Columbia, fewer than 3 percent of roughly 7,500 places inspected by the city fire marshal's office have sprinklers.

Many other stores, hotels, restaurants, schools and government buildings throughout South Carolina also don't have sprinklers, officials say, though exact numbers are not known.

An analysis by The State newspaper found that only a third of the state's hotels have sprinklers and meet the standard the federal government uses for its employees.

Last week's blaze that killed nine firefighters at the Sofa Super Store in Charleston has rekindled the debate about the need for sprinklers in buildings. The store did not have sprinklers, nor was it required to under state law.

State Sen. David Thomas, R-Greenville, said Friday the Charleston tragedy prompted him to draft a bill that would require sprinklers in all commercial and industrial buildings statewide. Current law generally makes exceptions for older buildings.

Thomas said he tried to introduce his bill Thursday, but Senate rules prevented him from doing so.

"It's just beyond comprehension ... that so little has been put in place on a statewide basis that could save lives," he said.

Thomas said he plans to pre-file his bill for next year's legislative session, which begins in January, as "soon as I can."

After a 2004 fire at a Comfort Inn in Greenville that killed six people, Thomas introduced a bill that would have required sprinklers in all hotels. It died after opposition from the hotel industry -- primarily from Charleston hotel operators who claimed it was too expensive and difficult to install sprinklers in many historic buildings.

Thomas, chairman of the Senate Banking and Insurance Committee, said Friday that to quell that type of argument against his new bill, he would offer tax credits over at least five years, and possibly as long as 10 years, to help businesses pay for the installation.

Having sprinklers will increase the value of property and should lower insurance rates, Thomas said. If insurance companies won't voluntarily lower their rates for sprinklers, he said, he would consider legislation requiring it.

Thomas said that although horrific, the deaths of the nine Charleston firefighters won't guarantee passage of his bill next year.

"It's funny what time does to mute feelings and sensitivities," he said. "For that reason, it will be real tough to pass this."

'A lot of old buildings'

Of 7,500 Columbia-area locations that the city fire marshal's office inspects, only 173, or slightly more than 2 percent, have sprinklers, said Assistant Fire Marshal Frank Maples.

"Columbia has a lot of old buildings," he said. "When they were built, they met code. ... You couldn't build that same building today."

Generally, new or renovated hotels, apartment buildings and large stores are required to have sprinklers, Maples said, but he added the code has certain exceptions.

About 3,200 locations, or 40 percent of the total inspected by the city, are offices, Maples said, and about 1,900 locations, or roughly 25 percent, are hotels, motels or apartments. The rest are split among other places, including stores, churches and bars.

Maples could not immediately provide detailed breakdowns by sections of the city, such as the Vista, where a number of businesses housed in old buildings -- including restaurants -- do not have sprinklers.

Under state law, all municipalities must abide by the International Building Code, Maples said.

The code, adopted about seven years ago, is periodically updated, he said, noting, for example, restaurants and nightclubs with an occupancy of at least 100 will be required to have sprinklers in about a year.

"We're very close to having sprinklers even in new houses," said city Fire Chief Bradley Anderson, explaining a national home builders group narrowly blocked the code requirement for the U.S. in a recent vote.

Anderson said smoke detectors, while important, aren't enough protection, especially for people who are bedridden or those who don't respond to alarms because they are under the influence of alcohol or drugs.

Sprinklers have quickly put out blazes in recent years in three Housing Authority high-rises, which installed them about 15 years ago, Anderson said.

Still, far too many buildings in the city need sprinklers, he said.

"Gradually, the codes are getting better," he said. "Unfortunately, we're left with all these buildings that were not required to have (sprinklers)."

State buildings

Statewide, most buildings don't have sprinklers, said John Reich, deputy director of the state labor department's fire safety division. He couldn't provide more specific figures.

Reich said his 15 fire marshals inspect nearly all public K-12 school buildings statewide, county jail buildings and state prisons, and all day care centers and foster homes. In addition, his office has certified about 600 fire marshals who inspect other state or local facilities.

Michael Sponhour, spokesman for the state Budget and Control Board, said his agency oversees and manages about 80 state buildings, some of which have sprinklers. Among those that have sprinkler systems are the State House and Governor's Mansion -- which receive thousands of visitors each year.

"Those buildings were recently, in effect, gutted and rebuilt," Sponhour said. "When that happened, modern systems were put in."

He acknowledged plenty of other state buildings, including the Wade Hampton building on the Statehouse grounds that houses his office, do not have sprinklers. But, he added, other safety systems are in place, such as smoke alarms and fire extinguishers.

Hotels and motels

The U.S. government requires its employees only stay in accommodations that meet the requirements of the Hotel and Motel Fire Safety Act of 1990. That law requires smoke detectors in each room and sprinklers in buildings four stories or higher.

In its approved list, the government also notes which hotels and motels that are three stories or less have sprinklers.

Based on that list, The State found roughly half the hotels and motels on the federally approved list have sprinkler systems in South Carolina.

Of the 1,067 hotels statewide, 658 are approved for federal employees, and 313 of those have sprinkler systems, according to the federal list of approved accommodations.

Data isn't complete enough to determine whether that means only a third of the state's hotels have sprinkler systems.

One of those hotels -- the Comfort Inn in Greenville -- did not have sprinklers when the six people died in a 2004 fire.

"That put us on alert how devastating it can be," Thomas said. "(The new bill) simply brings us into the 21st century."