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A debate over whether all new homes built in South Carolina should include fire sprinklers is heating up, with home builders who oppose the idea facing off against firefighters who support it.
The S.C. Building Code Council met Wednesday in Columbia to decide whether to adopt the International Residential Code, which mandates fire sprinklers in new homes built after July 2011.
Whatever the council decides, lobbying efforts will continue because the state's elected officials must ultimately sign off on the code.
Just a day before the meeting, the National Fire Protection Association launched a campaign featuring burn victims, relatives of fallen firefighters and others affected by fires, who spoke in favor of sprinklers.
The "Faces of Fire" campaign will be featured in commercials and billboards statewide in an effort to drum up support for the new code.
"We absolutely have to pass this code to protect people and firefighters," said public information officer Dan Byrne of the Burton Fire District. "Personally, every fire that I've responded to here in Beaufort County in a home that had a sprinkler system, the fire was out before we got there."
The Home Builders Association of South Carolina doesn't disagree that sprinklers make people safer, but it is fighting the requirement on the grounds that it is should be up to homeowners.
The association argues that installing sprinklers will significantly increase the cost of building housing in South Carolina, putting homeownership out of reach of working-class residents. The requirement also wouldn't make older housing any more safe, the association maintains.
Allen Patterson, president of the Home Builders Association of the Lowcountry, said a better route would be to provide incentives for installing sprinklers in homes by allowing homeowners to get a break on their insurance if they add the systems.
"Home builders are all for safety and saving lives, but it just can't be a mandated cost on the back of housing," Patterson said.
Sprinkler systems also have to be inspected every few years and they "leak more often than a house catches on fire," Patterson said.
Firefighters says those arguments are just a smoke screen.
Education officer Sandy Stroud of the Bluffton Township Fire District pointed to the National Fire Association's statistics that the risk of dying in a home fire decreases by 80 percent with sprinklers. They also significantly reduce property damage, he said.
"We've already seen the effects of commercial sprinkler systems," he said. "The fire is held in control and the sprinklers put out the fire before it can spread."
Home builders and firefighters also disagree on cost, with the home builders association estimates installing sprinklers at $3 to $4 per square foot and fire associations estimating it at $2 per foot or less.
The debate is expected to continue, and not only in South Carolina. Thirty-seven other states have rejected the sprinkler requirement, with California and Maryland the only two to pass it.
"It's going to be a long battle," Patterson said.