State law does not require such systems
When Lee Buckley shows her two Folly Beach rentals to vacationing families, the mother of two is quick to point out potential hazards, such as the location of cleaning chemicals and window blind cords.
But her rental homes, like the vast majority of beach houses along the South Carolina coast, don't have the one item that could help prevent a potential disaster: fire sprinklers. Nor are they required to under state law.
"We try to think of every safety thing in the house," Buckley said. "I'm extremely safety-conscious and yet, I don't have sprinklers."
Thousands of beach homes have gone up along the coast in recent decades. The trend has been to build them big — 6,000 square feet or more — and to pack in as many vacationers as possible. But despite their size, the structures are still considered single-family homes under the state building code. And that means they aren't required to have sprinklers and other safety measures commonly found in newer hotels and commercial buildings, officials said.
Concerns about fire safety have grown in the wake of Sunday's deadly fire at a waterfront home in Ocean Isle Beach, N.C. The fast-moving blaze killed seven South Carolina college students, including Cassidy Pendley, 18, of North Charleston. The five-bedroom home, owned by the family of a student staying there, lacked sprinklers, which also aren't required under North Carolina's building code.
Experts say sprinklers might have slowed the fire before it consumed the building. Similar observations followed the Sofa Super Store fire that killed nine Charleston firefighters in June. The furniture outlet wasn't required to have sprinklers because it was built before sprinkler mandates went into effect.
Fire officials in local oceanfront communities say their jurisdictions include dozens of homes similar to the one that burned in North Carolina. They would like to see owners take the initiative to install sprinklers.
Folly Beach Fire Marshal David Lombardi said his island has a number of large homes with four, five and six bedrooms. They can accommodate even more people by using sleeper sofas and cots. People flock to the homes for weddings, family reunions and other celebrations and fire safety might not be foremost in their minds, he said.
"These places really fill up, and most of these residential homes don't have sprinklers," he said. "It really does come down to a public safety issue."
Sullivan's Island has some homes as large as 9,000 square feet and may even have to buy a larger ladder truck to safely fight fires in its tallest houses, Fire Chief Anthony Stith said.
The Isle of Palms has about 1,500 rental properties, ranging from 340-square-foot, one-bedroom units to 11-bedroom spreads that sprawl over 7,200 square feet. About 20 new homes have been built with sprinklers in the past five years, but most of the housing stock still lacks such protection.
Fire Chief Ann Graham said size isn't the only concern. Some homes can be difficult to access because one or two sides face the water. Winds rolling off the ocean can also feed flames burning through older wood construction. "I wouldn't build one of these along the beach without a sprinkler system," she said.
State building codes do not require sprinkler systems for residences and rental homes unless the homes are four stories or more. The open ground area under most raised beach homes does not count as a floor because it is not enclosed for occupancy.
South Carolina's building codes are based on the 2003 International Building Code, said Jim Knight, director of communications and governmental affairs for the state Department of Labor, Licensing and Regulation.
The state is expected to adopt in July 2008 the 2006 version of the International Building Code, which also does not include a requirement for sprinkler systems in homes.
The building industry has fought residential sprinkler requirements, arguing that the systems are too expensive. Sprinkler industry officials and safety advocates counter that the cost is usually no more than 1 percent or 2 percent of a new home's cost.
Buckley, like many owners of existing homes, said it would be too expensive to retrofit her homes with sprinklers. Experts say it costs about double to install sprinklers in existing homes versus new ones.
Still, Buckley said there are other ways to reduce the potential for accidents. For example, she won't rent to people younger than 25 or to large groups. "When you have a large number of young people nobody is in charge and things can go wrong. That horrible accident (in North Carolina) confirmed to me why we don't rent to young people."
Some area beach rental companies also won't rent to people younger than 25.
Billy Strause, co-owner of Liberty Fire Protection in North Charleston, said sprinklers have become more common in new home construction but it tends to be limited to larger homes. "Sprinklers definitely save lives. But most people are only going to do what they have to do."
He estimated that installing a sprinkler system in a new 4,000-square-foot house would cost about $32,000. The cost is relative to the size and value of the home, he said. His company has installed sprinklers in some multimillion-dollar homes on Bald Head Island in North Carolina, where the homeowners didn't so much as blink at the bill. "Thirty or forty grand to those people is like a nuisance."