South Carolina legislators on Thursday heard complaints that state fire marshals often unnecessarily cost businesses, non-profits, and even state agencies hundreds of thousands of dollars per year through “absurd” interpretations of the fire code.
A legislative audit released earlier this month said the Office of the State Fire Marshal had been “inconsistent” in how it enforced the fire code with regard to fire extinguishers and cooking stoves. The audit also said the Office did not give organizations an adequate way to appeal.
A three-member Senate subcommittee listened to the complaints in a hearing Thursday afternoon. The legislators were looking to see if reforms were needed in the OFSM after receiving several complaints from businesses. One member of the Labor, Commerce, and Industry Committee, Sen. Glenn Reese (D-Spartanburg), requested the audit.
The State Fire Marshal’s Office inspects all schools, hospitals, prisons, and daycares in the state, among other facilities.
State Corrections Director Jon Ozmint criticized the office for what he calls “absurd” requirements. He says one part of the fire code does not allow him to put locks on the exits at minimum security prisons.
We point out… the reason we put the lock on that door was because we had a problem with inmates stepping outside to pick up liquor, contraband, or they’re stepping outside and getting in the car with their girlfriend and leaving. So, we put the lock on there. When, then he says, “Well, I don’t care about that. The code says you’ve got to do this,” I think you’ve got a real power problem.
Ozmint says marshals need to understand that what’s needed in commercial buildings is not always the best idea for prisons. He urged the committee to hold prisons to a different standard than other structures. As one example, he criticized a requirement that sprinkler heads be in every room, including showers. Ozmint said inmates often damage the heads. Ozmint says the state then has to pay for new sprinklers, wasting taxpayer money.
He says 24-hour surveillance by guards is more efficient than fire suppressants.
I’ve been there eight years. I’ve not had one injury due to fire…Any code that requires me to put a sprinkler head in a stainless steel shower goes beyond the pale of reason.
However, State Fire Marshal John Reich says deadly fires have occurred in South Carolina prisons before. He mentioned a 1979 fire at a Lancaster County prison that killed eleven inmates. He said a separate fire did not kill anyone, but “began in a shower.”
The audit also found problems in how the OFSM interpreted a national fire code with regard to discontinued fire extinguishers. After one manufacturer, General Fire Extinguishing, went bankrupt in 2001, the agency said all General fire extinguishers had to be replaced during maintenance tests after 2005. However, the code does not require replacement unless the parts are unavailable, which was not the case in General extinguishers.
The problem generated controversy after it was revealed that marshals forced the Greenville County School District to replace all of its sprinklers, costing taxpayers more than $30,000.
But it also affected individuals on a smaller scale. Leroy Lowery, a pastor at Southside Free Will Baptist Church in Darlington, criticized what he considered over-regulation of a daycare at Southside. He said he was also told by a vendor that his extinguishers had to be replaced.
These extinguishers were in perfectly good working order, but were replaced by our vendor. His extinguishers. Our money. We believed this to be a gross conflict of interest, when the man condemning our property could then sell us his property, at his price.
Lowery said there was no realistic appeal available to him, so he had to buy the new extinguishers.
However, Linda Porter of the vendor National Fire Protection Company said there’s little financial incentive for vendors to unreasonably push people to buy new extinguishers.
The profit margin in this competitive market is very low on new fire extinguishers. We could service General fire extinguishers, and make more money than we do replacing them.
Lowery says continual conflicts over fire code restrictions eventually led his church to end its daycare program.
He says local fire marshals have the power to make life difficult for building owners, so most keep quiet.
It is because of fear. Cold, hard, paralyzing fear. What will happen if we do appeal or resist their decision? So, we keep quiet, pay the fees, and quietly build up disrespect for, and contempt of, our government.
The hearing was led by Sen Kevin Bryant (R-Anderson). Bryant, along with Reese, and Sen. Lee Bright (R-Spartanburg) all vocally sympathized with Ozmint and Lowery.
Bright said he would look at how to make the appeals process easier for organizations.
Bryant said more hearings are needed so legislators can get a good picture of what kind of reforms are necessary in the agency.