Construction projects across S.C. on hold to facilitate fire safety

COLUMBIA -- Almost 1,000 University of South Carolina students who live in dorms could go another year without sprinklers and other fire protection because of a state building moratorium.

The State Budget and Control Board has halted for three months the start of major construction projects on campuses across the state -- including renovations of three residence halls at the University of South Carolina to add fire protection and sprinklers.

Because dorm renovations must be done in the summer when students are off campus, USC officials said, the moratorium could effectively mean a yearlong delay in adding the life-saving protection to the dormitories.

Columbia Fire Chief Bradley Anderson, whose department provides fire service for the USC campus, said sprinklers can make a life-or-death difference in the event of a fire in a residential building.

"I applaud the university for trying to move forward to complete this work," Anderson said. "They have been working hard at it, and they are aware of how important it is.

"I don't know the intricacies of their funding process, but anything that can be done to provide students with sprinkler protection, I would encourage. The university has a good handle on what needs to be done."

Students living in the three residence halls -- Preston College, DeSaussure College and Patterson Hall -- could go another year without the new fire safety features.

The three residence halls combined have 920 beds.

"Having every bed with a sprinkler is a priority," USC spokesman Russ McKinney said. "We'd hate to see our efforts to reach 100 percent delayed."

The moratorium

The budget board voted to impose the three-month moratorium on any project in which state funds were not already committed.

The board put on hold 26 projects across the state, including:

• A project for the Department of Disabilities and Special Needs to add fire alarm systems at the Whitten Center, the state-run home for the mentally disabled in Clinton;

• Four projects of the USC Athletics Department;

• Renovation of a historic structure at South Carolina State University;

• Sports facilities at Coastal Carolina University;

• A multipurpose building for the Department of Corrections in Allendale County; and

• A stadium addition at Clemson University.

The Budget and Control Board is an administrative council comprising the governor, the comptroller general, the state treasurer and the chairmen of the House and Senate budget committees.

The five members must vote on many administrative decisions that, in most other states, are the governor's sole prerogative.

The board's decision meant a number of projects seeking money to begin designing construction will have to wait until at least October to receive budget board approval.

Projects paid for with private money were exempt.

Comptroller General Richard Eckstrom said the state's declining tax revenues made him uneasy, and he wanted time for the state economy to stabilize.

"It's that which really drives my gut-level concern here," Eckstrom said, referring to state revenues. "Three months gives us a window we can use to assess."

Smoke detectors in all dorms

USC has smoke detectors in all of the approximately 6,900 rooms in its residence halls.

But it is still working to equip all of the rooms in its older halls with sprinklers. In 1997, just 10 percent of dormitory rooms had sprinklers. That number had risen to 32 percent by 2000.

Equipping residence halls with sprinklers is the top priority for the university in refitting old campus buildings.

The safety improvements are paid for with student fees, not taxpayer money.

"We are not doing any sprinkler projects this summer, but we were slated to do three in 2009," McKinney said.

State law requires state universities to get approval from the Budget and Control Board for any construction project, whether or not the Legislature provided the money. That approval was being sought to begin design work on the residence hall renovations that would take place in the summer of 2009.

"We currently are at 75 percent of our beds with sprinklers," McKinney said. "These projects would bring us up to 85 percent.

"Having every bed with a sprinkler is a priority, and we'd hate to see our efforts to reach 100 percent delayed."