Don't sacrifice public safety for builder profits

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By The Staff

Recent news reports tell us that America’s confidence in government is at an all-time low, and here’s a good example of why. Given a choice between ensuring the safety of citizens and lining the pockets of the home building industry with profits, South Carolina may be on the verge of giving public safety the back seat.

Here’s a statistic that may shock you. In the past 30 years, more than 100,000 people in the Unites States have lost their lives in fires, most often in their own homes, one or two at a time. Laid end-to-end, that line of caskets would extend more than 100 miles. It’s a fact that more people die in home fires each year in the United States than in all natural disasters combined  – hurricanes, tornadoes and earthquakes included. In South Carolina, we consistently rank as one of the worst states in the nation with respect to residential fire deaths.

 In just the past four months, 32 of our citizens have perished in home fires.

Home fire deaths and injuries are a cancer in our society that is largely preventable, and national experts in building construction and fire safety have acted to deliver a cure – home fire sprinklers. While the idea may seem odd to some, consider this: All residential occupancies, hotels, motels, apartments, condominiums, etc. are now required to have fire sprinkler systems, and they have been for many years. The logic is simple: In places where people sleep, they should be protected from fire. You deserve the same level of protection from fire in your home that people who sleep in apartments and condominiums enjoy.

The technology is simple. Home fire sprinklers can integrate with your residential plumbing system just like a toilet or a sink. The technology is proven. The American Housing Survey, based on the 2000 census, reported more than 5.4 million housing units protected by fire sprinkler systems. Experience with home fire sprinklers has clearly shown us that these systems save lives, prevent injuries and protect property, with most fires being controlled by operation of a single sprinkler nearest where the fire started. All of these factors led national experts to revise our nation’s building codes to require fire sprinklers in new homes beginning in 2011.

With all of this in mind, the S.C. Building Codes Council, a group appointed by the governor in accordance with state law and intended to keep politics out of building and fire safety code decisions, weighed the evidence and rendered a decision a few months ago to put safety first by adopting the national code.

That decision should have put South Carolina on a clear path that would one day allow our children and their families to live in homes without fear of losing lives or property to residential fires, but it didn’t.

The South Carolina home-building industry has pulled out all the stops to prevent the sprinkler law from being enacted. Why does the home-building industry oppose fire sprinklers? The answer is simple. First, builders benefit when homes burn. Last year, fire losses in one- and two-family homes in South Carolina amounted to more than $40 million, which directly translates into a significant market for builders in fire-related reconstruction. Second, builders know that if fire sprinklers become mandatory, they can’t charge more for new homes to offset the additional cost; whereas, they can charge more if sprinklers are an optional upgrade. Let me explain.

Contrary to their assertions, builders do not have free rein to increase the cost of housing in South Carolina in a normal market environment.

For builders to sell new homes, they must remain competitive with the marketplace as a whole. If builders charge too much, buyers will seek out alternatives, such as existing homes and remodels. Accordingly, builders routinely adjust home sizes and features to meet a competitive price target.

The exception to this rule occurs in “hot” markets, like the one that we had a few years ago, when home prices skyrocketed and builders reaped unprecedented profits. At that point, our good friends at the home builders association had little concern for home affordability. Instead, builders’ ultra-inflated prices eventually helped to tank the U.S. economy. Are these really the people you want as “trusted advisors” to the legislature on the subject of home affordability?

As a final point, I would like to comment on the home builders association’s new role as self-elected fire-safety experts. Builders are trumpeting that all we need is smoke alarms and society will be safe. That’s a very interesting argument coming from the industry that vigorously opposed smoke alarm mandates 30 years ago when they were first introduced, using the same home-affordability arguments being offered today against sprinklers.

While we certainly agree that smoke alarms are essential, the National Fire Incident Reporting System tells us that one out of every three fire fatalities occurs in a home with working smoke alarms. Far too often, children, older adults and those who are disabled or impaired fail to awaken or awaken too slowly to escape when a smoke alarm sounds. Times have changed…with plastics and other highly flammable materials found in today’s homes, a misplaced candle or forgotten pan on the stove can turn an entire home into a raging inferno in minutes. Or, a single fire sprinkler could save your life, the lives of your family members and all of your possessions.

We are South Carolina’s firefighters. We are your neighbors and your friends, sworn to a single duty of protecting you and your families and to be ready, day and night, to respond when you’re in need. Today, it’s our turn to call on you for help. We ask the citizens and the legislature to support our effort to protect lives – yours and ours – by adopting the national building code with the fire sprinkler requirement intact.

We don’t need substandard housing in South Carolina, and putting public safety before profits is the right thing to do.

Joe H. Palmer is executive director

for the S.C. State Firefighters’ Association.