McConnell to research fire code

COLUMBIA — Glenn McConnell wants to give South Carolina churches a belated Christmas present when the Legislature reconvenes in January.

McConnell, R-Charleston, and Sen. Larry Grooms, R-Bonneau, pre-filed a bill Wednesday that would remove an old prohibition against natural Christmas trees in churches without sprinklers.

"Common sense just went flying out the window," Senate President Pro Tem McConnell said citing parts of the law that requires the indoor trees to be secured with a device that can contain a minimum of two days' worth of water and be removed from the building "if the needles are brittle and break when bent between the thumb and index finger."

"Who is going to monitor all that?" McConnell said. "This is an example of bureaucratic government."

McConnell began looking into the matter after reading a Nov. 30 story in The Post and Courier. The fire code was put into effect decades ago, and McConnell said it wasn't clear when the restrictions were put in place as updates aren't reviewed by the Legislature.

McConnell said he is going to research the code and determine what updates might be necessary, recognizing the seriousness of fire safety.

The code also prohibits Christmas trees in public buildings such as hotels and fraternity houses unless the buildings are equipped with automatic sprinkler systems.

State Fire Marshal John Reich has said that code enforcement is up to municipal fire departments.

Officials said fire departments can work with churches to train ushers to use fire extinguishers and that enforcement is applied in a common-sense manner.

Christmas tree fires kill about 10 people a year and injure eight times as many, according to the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission.

The Rev. David A. Donges, bishop of the South Carolina Synod of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, suggested that the state could allow churches to decide individually whether to bring in live Christmas trees after weighing potential risks.

As far as advising churches on what to do, Donges said, "I don't think that would be a bishop's directive."