Apartment fire sharpens focus on sprinklers

Saturday blaze displaced 12 at Pepper Ridge complex

A weekend blaze at an apartment complex near Manchester Village has brought renewed scrutiny to fire sprinklers and whether South Carolina's older buildings ought to have them.

One apartment was gutted and another severely damaged when flames broke out Saturday morning at the Pepper Ridge complex near Target on Springsteen Road. No one was hurt, but 12 people were displaced.

A 2006 fire at Pepper Ridge forced eight families from their homes.

Now, the Pepper Ridge manager and a local fire official disagree on how much sprinklers would have helped. Their arguments illuminate a debate that has emerged since last year, when a Charleston fire killed nine firefighters and an Ocean Isle, N.C., beach house fire resulted in the deaths of seven college students.

Pepper Ridge was built in 1998, six years before state law required sprinklers. The complex's manager, Lee Thomasson, emphasized that fire alarms alerted residents to evacuate, along with neighbors banging on doors. In this case, he believes that sprinklers might have made the situation worse.

"If we had a sprinkler system, I'd have had 16 displaced instead of 12," he said. "Their bedding would've been soaked. Their sofa and furniture would've been soaked. They would've had nowhere to live other than a hotel room."

That's not necessarily true, said York County Fire Marshal Randy Thompson. Sprinkler systems are designed so that water only sprays where flames are detected, he said.

"I don't think it's the total answer, but I think it will go a long way toward protecting lives," he said. "One, it's peace of mind. Two, it's going to control that fire in the early stages. It's the way to protect your family and your belongings."

Saturday's blaze started in a bedroom, but the cause remains undetermined, said Rock Hill fire investigator Travis McDaniel. Authorities don't consider it suspicious. They returned to the scene Monday to comb for evidence.

In 2006, authorities ruled the fire was started by a candle or smoking material.

McDaniel did not want to comment on any specific cases, though he agreed that sprinklers can be valuable. "A sprinkler system is sort of like a seat belt," he said. "Statistics show they do work."

A hot-button issue

New apartment buildings must include sprinklers based on the International Building Code, adopted by the state in 2004. Structures built before January 2005, such as Pepper Ridge, are grandfathered and not required to make changes, said city building official Don Houck.

The issue has taken on added urgency since an Oct. 28 fire at a beach house in Ocean Isle Beach, N.C., that killed six University of South Carolina students and one Clemson student. The house had working smoke detectors but no fire sprinklers.

Four months earlier in Charleston, nine firefighters were killed while battling a blaze inside a furniture store. Fire officials testified to a state panel that sprinklers could have saved lives in the incident.

This year, state lawmakers are looking at ways to equip more buildings with sprinkler systems. They are considering incentives for property owners who install sprinklers in older buildings that were built before such systems were required.

Top officials with the Municipal Association of South Carolina, Hospitality Association of South Carolina and Home Builders Association of South Carolina have said they support tax credits.

The key issue is how to divide costs. It's an important question because installing sprinklers can be expensive, especially in older buildings with quirky designs.

At a cost of $5 per square foot, it would cost nearly $300,000 to install an indoor sprinkler system in a 55,000-square-foot building, according to the S.C. Municipal Association. That's roughly the size of a large grocery store.

Businesses don't want to shoulder the full cost, but local water suppliers also are wary about taking on the burden. Elected officials are left to sort out a compromise that strikes the right balance.

"There's more Pepper Ridges out there," said Rock Hill Fire Chief Mike Blackmon. "If they had sprinklers, we feel like we know what they would do. Any time you can prevent something, we have less work to do."