Fire chief hopes for new sprinkler code to pass

CHARLESTON, SC (WCSC) - Almost 100 people die every year in South Carolina house fires, but a new mandate could require sprinkler systems in all new construction starting in 2011.

When the state's rate is twice the national average, Chief Thomas Carr says the mandatory sprinkler system will save many lives in Charleston.

"It's too powerful to let it go. This is like seatbelts and seismic protection in your home," Carr says. "Especially [for] our kids, elderly, disabled people who need an extra minute to get out."

The mandate would require all one- and two-family homes to have systems installed. The code would be effective Jan. 1, 2011.

Each sprinkler head has a bulb in it that breaks at about 130 degrees, and once it detects the heat of the fire and breaks, it releases eight gallons a minute until the fire is out and it is turned off.

Each head works independently though so George Ewes says extensive water damage won't be an issue.

"It's not like you see in the movies when one goes off they all go," says Ewes, who works for Sprinkler Fitters.

Ewes says to install the sprinklers during construction will cost between $1.60 and $2 a square foot.

"Generally it'll cost you the same as some really good carpet," Ewes says.

It could cost twice that amount to retrofit your home. Regardless, it seems a small price to pay, especially for Karen Mann, who lost her daughter in the fire at Ocean Isle in 2008.

"The cost of the ER for one night is approximately the cost of putting in that sprinkler system when you had the chance," Mann says. "Someone burned has to be in a burn unit for months that could cost millions. There's also the cost of funerals."

Smoke detectors have been the standard for years, but they require upkeep and human interaction, leaving room for error.

"You've got to change the batteries of a sprinkler system, check it, make sure it's working," Ewes says.

The ease of a sprinkler system is why Carr favors it.

"Sprinkler systems require no intervention. They're laying in wait," Carr says.

There is opposition though. A House bill passed out of the codes committee two weeks ago that would block the sprinkler mandate from taking effect. Next that bill will head to the full House floor.