Fire-safety advocates soldier on

GREENVILLE - More than five years after the deadly Comfort Inn fire, the state has done little to require more safety equipment at hotels.

Firefighters and their supporters statewide have been lobbying for legislation that would help get sprinklers installed in more homes and commercial buildings.

They have won some victories but said they don't go far enough. Fire-safety advocates plan to return to the Legislature in January to seek expansions to a tax credit and more lucrative insurance discounts for property owners who install sprinklers.

While the state has hesitated to require sprinklers, some hotels have taken it upon themselves to voluntarily install them.

Six guests died at the Comfort Inn in Greenville in January 2004, while others saved themselves by jumping from windows three stories high.

The fire started in a third-floor foyer and quickly filled the hallway with a suffocating, black smoke, according to testimony in a 2007 federal arson case.

The Comfort Inn didn't have sprinklers, and a clerk turned off the fire alarm the first time it sounded, according to testimony. Eric Preston Hans, 39, received a life sentence after a jury found him guilty of arson and deadlocked while deliberating whether he should be executed.

The Comfort Inn rebuilt and now is among the six hotels in the Wade Hampton fire district that have sprinklers, Fire Marshal Jim Gurley said.

Whether a hotel is required to have sprinklers depends on a variety of factors, including square footage, how many floors it has and when it was built.

Many hotels installed sprinklers after the Hotel and Motel Fire Safety Act of 1990 began requiring that federal employees traveling on business stay in hotels that have them, experts said.

Since the Comfort Inn fire, the state has taken some steps aimed at making hotels safer.

Hotels that aren't required to have sprinklers are now supposed to hang signs near registration desks notifying guests. Local water utilities can no longer charge big fees to businesses that want to install sprinklers.

Firefighters' resolve to make buildings safer intensified in June 2007 after nine firefighters died in a Charleston sofa store blaze.

Advocates for sprinklers argue that they douse flames before firefighters arrive and limit water damage. While a sprinkler may spray eight gallons of water a minute, some firefighting hoses can shoot more than 15 times that amount.

Sprinklers go off one at a time when activated by heat, but just because one goes off doesn't mean the whole building will be doused.

The cost of installing a fire sprinkler can range from about $1.50 a square foot to seven times that much.

The Legislature decided in 2008 to allow local governments to offer a tax credit to property owners who install sprinklers. The credit would be equal to 25 percent of the direct expenses and would be matched by the state.

Cities have declined to offer the tax credit because of concerns over how unfunded state mandates and the sputtering economy will affect their budgets, said Ed Schafer, legislative counsel for the Municipal Association of South Carolina.

"They're more cautious than anything," he said.

If the owner of a 35,000-square-foot hotel installed sprinklers at $3 a square foot, it would cost $105,000. The local government's share of the tax credit would be $26,250.

If enough property owners took advantage of the credit in a single year, a city's bottom line could take a serious hit, possibly endangering its ability to provide services to its citizens.

The city of Columbia passed an ordinance that would have allowed the tax credit to be parceled out over four years. Also under Columbia's ordinance, taxpayers could have received a rebate instead of a tax credit.

The state Department of Revenue expressed concern about whether those provisions conformed to state law and asked for an opinion from state Attorney General Henry McMaster.

Cydney M. Milling, an assistant attorney general, wrote in April that they didn't conform. Columbia repealed the ordinance.

Marty Reynolds, chairman of the South Carolina Fire Sprinkler Committee, said the ad hoc firefighters' group would like for local governments to be allowed to spread out their liability over a decade.

"Somebody else is not paying for it," said Reynolds, a captain with the Belmont Fire Department. "This is going to be refunded to the property owner over a period of 10 years."

Sen. David Thomas, R-Greenville, said that even with a modified tax credit, local governments could still decline to take advantage of it.

He said he is planning to revive an effort that would mandate that insurance companies offer discounts to property owners who install sprinklers.

While companies already offer such discounts, whether they are enough to justify the cost of installation "is another story," Thomas said

The last bill went to the Labor, Commerce and Industry Committee. This time, Thomas said, he would want it to be sent to the Banking and Insurance Committee, where he is chairman.

"I could obviously control that better and at least be able to get a fair hearing on the concept," he said.

For Greenville's tallest buildings, the answer to making them safer may not lie in new ladder trucks.

Greenville firefighters' longest ladder reaches about seven stories, which is standard but falls short of reaching the top floors of the tallest buildings, city Fire Chief Tommy McDowell said.

Out of reach of the ladder, fire safety depends on protections, such as alarms, sprinklers and protected stairwells.