N.C. Firefighters Ask Building Code Council for Sprinkler Requirements

December 12, 2007

With the deaths of seven South Carolina college students in a North Carolina beach house fire still fresh, firefighters’ groups hope state regulators will make sprinkler systems mandatory in large or multi-story homes.

“Whether or not sprinklers would have saved all of those lives in Ocean Isle Beach, we don’t know,” said Frank Blackley, president of the N.C. Fire Marshal’s Association and assistant chief with the Wilmington Fire Department. “But we think it could have saved some.”

An early morning fire on Oct. 28 at a waterfront beach house killed six students from the University of South Carolina and one from Clemson University. Authorities said a discarded cigarette or other smoking materials may have caused the fire, which was determined to be accidental.

The house did not have a sprinkler system.

The association and other firefighter groups were to present their proposal at the meeting of the N.C. Building Code Council on Tuesday in Raleigh. A public hearing would then likely be scheduled for the council’s March meeting.

During a public hearing Monday, firefighters asked the council not to drop a provision in the state building code that would allow local jurisdictions to require sprinklers in new houses.

The provision is scheduled to become effective in 2009 if the council doesn’t remove it.

The firefighters’ proposal would cover large residences where slowing a fire could significantly increase the chances of survival, Blackley said. It proposes requiring sprinklers in new homes of more than 3,600 square feet or structures three or more stories off the ground.

The two-story house that burned at Ocean Isle Beach was built on pilings so it would have come under the proposal.

Development interests, including the N.C. Home Builders Association, generally oppose sprinklers, citing the cost as one reason. Blackley said sprinklers add 2 percent to a home’s overall construction cost, or about $4,000 on a $200,000 house.

“And those costs can be made up over time through less fire damage if there is a fire, lower insurance costs and obviously saving lives,” he said.

Other reasons cited for not needing sprinklers are that new homes have smoke detectors and they are built with more fire-resistant materials than older structures.

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