Fire safety experts call for sprinkers at beach houses

COLUMBIA -- Sprinklers that could protect beach vacationers from deadly fires aren't required in thousands of seaside houses rented to tourists each year in South Carolina.

But fire safety experts say they ought to be. Sprinkler systems snuff out fires before flames can spread.

"Every structure should be sprinklered," said Tom Barstow, fire chief at North Myrtle Beach, where hundreds of rental cottages line the seashore and marshes. "They are 95 percent effective in controlling or extinguishing a fire prior to the fire department's arrival."

Questions about fire safety have arisen this week in the aftermath of a fatal house fire in Ocean Isle Beach, N.C.

Six USC students and one from Clemson died when fire erupted early Sunday in the house. The home was being used by students invited there for a weekend house party by the owner's daughter.

The cause of the fire is still under investigation. Reports indicate the house did not have sprinklers.

South Carolina law doesn't require single-family homes, including vacation cottages, to be equipped with sprinklers, according to the State Fire Marshal's Office.

It is not known how many S.C. beach houses are without sprinklers, but fire experts doubt many have them.

The situation in South Carolina is like that in North Carolina. That state's fire code does not apply to single-family homes even those being rented to big groups of people, The (Raleigh) News & Observer reported.

The cost of adding sprinklers to existing houses could be sizable particularly in aging, ramshackle houses, say real estate agents who specialize in renting beach houses.

"It would cost a tremendous amount of money," said Martha Thompson, rental property manager with the Lachicotte real estate company in Pawleys Island. "A lot of these property owners have just been hit with a huge tax increase here. A lot of them are having a hard time holding on to what they've got."

Rod Swaim, who runs Dunes Realty in Garden City, agreed.

"It sounds crass talking about costs at a time like this, but it is an expense," he said. "I don't know about the practicality of this."

The debate about sprinklers isn't a new one in South Carolina, where a building's size and age often dictate whether sprinkler systems are required. The majority of the businesses in the Congaree Vista don't have sprinklers, but many are not required to because of their age and size, The State newspaper found earlier this year.

Many older hotels also are not required by state law to have sprinklers; the debate about whether to require retrofits for hotels has been heated in recent years because of a fatal motel fire in the Greenville area.

While retrofitting beach houses would surely spark a political fight, experts say it's at least worth considering sprinklers for new single-family houses whether they are beach rentals or private residences.