S.C. Statehouse Report
Sunday, June 24, 2007
VIEW: http://www.statehousereport.com/columns/07.0624.fire.htm

Business community needs to back sprinklers
By Andy Brack, Publisher

JUNE 22, 2007 - - Too many people have died because South Carolina doesn't require old buildings to have sprinkler systems.

Just this week, nine firefighters in Charleston died in an inferno at a sofa store and warehouse only a mile from my house.

Common sense dictates that if a sprinkler system had been in that building, those firefighters might be alive today. At the least, a functioning sprinkler system would have retarded the intensity of the fire so it might not have become a killer.

"Sprinkler systems have proven time and time again that they put the fire in check so we can go in there and do the job we need to do," said Michael Parrotta of Myrtle Beach, president of the S.C. Professional Firefighters Association.

One of several hundred fire vehicles today passed a funeral home near the Sofa Super Store on U.S. Highway 17 during a memorial procession in honor of the fallen firefighters.

Just three years ago in Greenville, six people died in a fire at a Comfort Inn that didn't have sprinklers.

If something isn't done, we'll keep having these tragedies.

Two years ago, a proposal to require hotels without sprinklers to be retrofitted with them got so watered down in the General Assembly that it's embarrassing. Instead of requiring hotels to put in sprinklers, the 2005 law required them to display notices to inform guests that rooms didn't have sprinklers.

How many more folks have to die before South Carolina wakes up to the reality that we need to require safer commercial buildings? Right now, new buildings have to have sprinkler systems. Old buildings that undergo major renovations or make major changes to occupancy requirements have to be upfitted with sprinkler systems.

But old buildings that are just old buildings are grandfathered from modern rules. They don't have to have sprinkler systems, a reality that could, in fact, exacerbate potential problems. If, for example, a chintzy business owner knows he needs to make a major fix to a building, he may decide to refrain from the fix if he knows he'll be forced to put in a sprinkler system too. The end result: the old building becomes less safe. In other words, current state law kind of encourages older buildings to become potentially even more unsafe.

State Sen. David Thomas, the Greenville Republican who tried to get hotels to make sprinkler retrofits a couple of years back, this week said he would make a hard push next year for all commercial buildings to be required to have sprinkler systems.

North Charleston firefighters stand at attention during a memorial procession in honor of the fallen firefighters.

"You can't have these kinds of things taking place [in the future] because of obstructionist attitudes in South Carolina," Thomas said.

While business owners may whine about costs,contractors say sprinkler upfits cost no more than $3 per square foot. Although businesses also may have to undergo modifications to bring bigger water pipes into the building, these costs don't seem too extreme to create a safer building and, potentially, to save lives.

Thomas added business owners in the long run could actually SAVE money by making adding sprinkler systems. First, he said his proposal would call for business owners to get tax credits for installing sprinkler systems. Second, he said commercial building owners should realize additional savings because insurance costs will be lower for buildings with sprinklers.

"This can only be a win-win for South Carolina," Thomas said. "They will fight me like all get-out over this because there has to be an outlay initially, even though they will be able to make it up over time."


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Naysayers already are circling - - even before a bill is introduced. Charleston GOP Sen. Glenn McConnell told The Post and Courier he liked Thomas's overall concept, but he didn't want to mandate business owners to install sprinkler systems because it might put some out of business.

"You can't take a perfectly sound building and start ordering people to refit them, where they would have to rip the ceilings out of historical buildings and stuff," McConnell told the paper.

Business leaders need to be at the front of the line to support a measure to help bring South Carolina workplaces into the 21st century. And state lawmakers need to have the backbone next year to make South Carolina safer. We don't need any more tragedies because of the lack of sprinkler systems.

You can reach Andy Brack, publisher of SC Statehouse Report, at brack@statehousereport.com.

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Divided, they succeeded
From the paid-subscriber issue of Statehouse Report

JUNE 22, 2007 -- While senators strutted like roosters in the lobby just outside House doors Thursday as both the state's budget and DOT reform acts were finally passed, the troubles that preceded those votes tell a story of political divisiveness that could influence work being done between sessions and on into the next few legislative years.

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