By BARBARA S. WILLIAMS – The Post and Courier
The good news is that a misguided attempt to reverse last year’s hard-fought national building code mandate for fire sprinklers in new residential construction has gone down to overwhelming defeat. It’s safe to say that when the committee and floor votes were taken late last month, no one in the Baltimore, Md., audience of several thousand was more elated than S.C.’s State Fire Marshal John Reich.
Reich describes the International Code Council’s reaffirmed commitment to the residential sprinkler mandate as ‘fantastic.’ Now, the question is whether homebuilder opposition to the mandate can be overcome at the state level. Expect to wait much of next year for the answer.
The prolonged process for adopting a new national building code in this state says the 2009 code won’t be up for approval until the middle of 2010. The comment period will end Dec. 2 and hearings will be conducted for another six months. It would then be up for approval by the S.C. Building Code Council. If there are no hitches, the new sprinkler mandate could go into effect as scheduled in January 2011.
But Reich is realistic enough to recognize that the homebuilder opposition that was recently thwarted at the ICC gathering in Baltimore will re-emerge in the state adoption process. While he appreciates the need to keep increases in construction costs at a minimum, he contends that the savings in lives and property to be gained by the $2 per square foot cost of sprinklers in single and two-family homes should be ‘a no brainer.’ According to Reich, some 400 communities already have new residential sprinkler requirements.
Among those is Prince George’s County, Md., which has had such a requirement in place for 15 years. A recent study of the results by sprinkler advocacy groups along with the University of Maryland shows that of the 13,494 house fires during that period, there were 101 deaths and 328 injuries in homes without sprinklers.
In homes that were sprinkler protected, there were no deaths and six injuries. During that time, sprinklers were activated 245 times in homes where 446 people were present. Property loses in sprinkler protected homes were said to be cut dramatically.
No one knows the value of sprinklers more than city of Charleston Fire Chief Thomas Carr, who formerly was chief of the Columbia County, Md., fire department, which was among the pioneers in the sprinkler mandate. He took over the reins of the Charleston Department after the deaths of nine firefighters more than two years ago in the horrific Sofa Super Store fire where, according to investigators, sprinklers could have saved lives. Unlike residences, most commercial properties are required to have sprinklers. The Sofa Super Store predated that mandate.
That tragedy, along with a fire at a North Carolina beach house where seven S.C. college students lost their lives, finally got legislative attention. The beach house had working smoke detectors but no sprinklers. But rather than strengthening old and imposing new sprinkler mandates, lawmakers passed an incentive package that has yet to implemented in any South Carolina community.
Carr’s plan to take that package to City Council this fall has been delayed until early next year, but he made it clear through a spokesman that it is no less a priority.
Four Charleston firemen were among the 71 S.C. fire and building inspection officials in Baltimore last month working to keep the ICC’s residential sprinkler mandate in place. According to reports, only a two-thirds vote at a May ICC conference can remove the mandate from the national code, now considered virtually impossible.
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