COLUMBIA -- South Carolina firefighters urged legislators Tuesday to uphold a construction code requiring that new homes be equipped with fire sprinklers in a debate that pits safety against cost.
They urged senators to defeat a bill, pushed by the Home Builders Association, that would block enforcement of the building standard adopted earlier this year. The House passed similar legislation two weeks ago.
Firefighters say the sprinklers will save lives and reduce the cost of injuries and property damage, while home builders argue it will put the price of homes out of the reach for tens of thousands of families statewide and kill economic recovery.
Mark Nix, executive director of the builders' group, said homeowners should be able to choose whether they want to pay extra for sprinklers. "If they want one, we'll put it in," he said.
The argument is reminiscent of the group's fight against smoke alarms in new homes 25 years ago, said John Reich, deputy director in the State Fire Marshal's office.
He contends sprinklers won't prevent potential homeowners from buying. There are other ways to reduce the cost if needed, Reich said, such as choosing less expensive flooring or countertops, or not installing yard sprinklers.
He acknowledges fire fatalities will continue regardless -- as of Sunday, 35 people had died in fires statewide -- since the code only applies to new construction.
"Smoke alarms are not enough considering new construction," said Carter Jones, retired fire chief of Clarendon County, surrounded by dozens of firefighters from across the state. He added that alarms need maintenance, and even when they work, "many people will sleep through an alarm, and many who are injured or killed are they very young, elderly and disabled."
In March, the state council that oversees building codes adopted the International Code Council's 2009 safety standards for residential construction. It requires one- and two-family homes built after Jan. 1 be equipped with sprinklers in main living areas -- exempting closets, bathrooms, garages and attics.
Any change to state building codes would have to go through legislative review under an amendment passed Tuesday, the start of the second week of debate.
"I'm a big supporter of sprinklers. To me, it's all about consumer choice," said the bill's sponsor, Sen. Thomas Alexander, R-Walhalla, adding he wants to encourage homeowners to opt for sprinklers, rather than tell them what to do.
The cost itself is a matter of debate. Home builders say installation costs $4-to-$6 per square foot, while the fire marshal's office estimates it at $2-to-$4 per square foot. Both sides agree it depends on options the homeowner chooses, the home's design, and other issues such as the water source.
Reich said the cost can be partly offset by insurance savings.
Insurance companies now offer South Carolina homeowners discounts of between 4 percent and 20 percent for having sprinkler systems, depending on the carrier. On a $150,000 home, the average savings of 12 percent amounts to $60 off the policy of a Columbia home and $200 off in Charleston, according to the state Insurance Department.
Not abiding by the safety standards could also increase the cost of homeowners' insurance for new and existing homes in 108 communities across the state, depending on a company's rating system, the department detailed in an April 13 analysis requested by legislators.
Firefighters and fire victims say the economic fight misses the point.
"How much is a life worth?" asked Princella Lee-Bridges of Greenville, who spent several months in a drug-induced coma in 1992 after suffering burns on half her body. "If sprinklers had been in my house, I would not have been injured."