S.C. senators hear pleas for wider use of sprinklers

COLUMBIA -- Private pain from the fire deaths last year of nine Charleston firefighters and seven university students was laid before the public Tuesday as grieving family members asked S.C. lawmakers to encourage and perhaps mandate more fire sprinkler systems.

"I can't go back or even drive by the station," said Lauren Mulkey, who lost her husband, firefighter Capt. Louis Mulkey, in the Sofa Super Store fire in Charleston in June.

"What I can tell you is that not a day goes by that I don't wonder, what if there were sprinklers," Mulkey told members of a Senate committee considering legislation.

Mulkey perished along with eight of his comrades in the nation's worst firefighter tragedy since the 9-11 terrorist attacks in New York City.

The Sofa Super Store had no sprinkler system, nor was one required under state law.

Mulkey's comments were made to a Senate subcommittee that is wrestling with three bills aimed at enticing more businesses, industry and residences to install or improve sprinkler systems in return for tax credits, insurance discounts and waived tap fees to help cover the cost.

"Give them what they need," pleaded Heather Baity, who also lost her husband, Rodney Bradford Baity, in the sofa store fire. She called on lawmakers to make "a reality check."

"Sprinklers it's a tool," she said. "A tool for the firefighters. One more tool they can have to do their jobs. It's our responsibility to give it to them."

Sen. David Thomas, R-Greenville, who pre-filed one of the Senate sprinkler bills, went before the committee Tuesday and asked that preference be given to a later bill, filed by Sen. Glenn McConnell, R-Charleston, that includes incentives for sprinklers in residences, where most fatalities occur in fires. Neither bill would mandate sprinkler installation.

The House has not considered a sprinkler bill.

Her voice trembling, Margaret Lee, a Florence attorney, told the committee about the pain of losing her son, William.

William Rhea perished in the late-night Oct. 28 vacation home fire at Ocean Isle Beach, N.C., where six University of South Carolina students died along with one student from Clemson University. Six other USC students survived the blaze.

The house had a smoke alarm, but no sprinkler system.

"I believe that if sprinklers had been in that house, those kids would have survived," Lee told the panel.

Older commercial buildings, new and older private homes, and vacation homes are not the only buildings in S.C. endangered by the absence of sprinklers. Columbia Fire Chief Bradley Anderson told the committee that hotels, nursing homes and night clubs are also at very high risk.

"We still need to try to cover all structures, residential as well as commercial," he said. "I would be in favor of mandatory retrofits."

Sen. Danny Verdin, R-Laurens, who chaired Tuesday's committee meeting, shook his head at the grief the family members expressed, and said legislators had a role to play in addressing their concerns. He said the main source of "push-back" over passing a law regarding stronger sprinkler requirements is the cost.

"There really is no reason for us not to pursue this level of safety and protection for our citizens," Verdin said. "The question is, how do we get there? I'm not sure we've gone far enough."

With that, Verdin said the committee's staff would re-examine all the sprinkler legislation and incorporate language designed to strengthen, enhance and beef-up the crop of bills before meeting again next week.

He said he wants more tax and other cost-neutralizing incentives put in the legislation to compel businesses and others to want to participate in sprinkler safety systems and trump the state's need to mandate it.

That will cost money, though. Verdin said he plans to discuss options with Labor, Commerce and Industry chairman Sen. Greg Ryberg, R-Aiken, and Senate Finance chairman Hugh Leatherman before next week.