By Gareth McGrath
Staff Writer
[email protected]

The fire gutted the house, leaving several college students dead and a community in mourning. It also prompted calls to strengthen the local fire code, since the working smoke alarms weren’t enough to prevent the deaths.

Sound familiar?

But this wasn’t 2007 and Ocean Isle Beach, and the dead college students weren’t from South Carolina.

This was 1996 and a University of North Carolina fraternity house in Chapel Hill.

Eleven years after that blaze killed five UNC students, Chapel Hill has regulations in place requiring sprinkler systems in fraternity and sorority houses and all new commercial or residential construction more than 6,000 square feet.

Chapel Hill Fire Chief Dan Jones said the new regulations have worked, with no loss of life in sprinkler-equipped facilities since then – including a case where a system had just been installed and hadn’t even been certified for use.

But there’s still a giant hole in the town’s push to increase fire protection; private homes are exempt.

“We’re still trying to do that through education,” Jones said.

He said the development community doesn’t feel sprinklers are a feature homebuyers are looking for, a fact laid out by the lack of new homes that have the systems installed.

Then there’s the cost of the systems.

“We think it could hurt housing affordability,” said Robert Privott, director of codes and construction with the N.C. Home Builders Association, adding that new homes are constructed safer and with more fire-resistant materials than older homes.

But Jones said he believes there’s a simpler reason more homeowners don’t choose to install sprinkler systems.

“We believe homebuyers haven’t been educated to what the benefit is,” he said.

As investigators continue to sift through the charred evidence of Sunday morning’s deadly Ocean Isle Beach blaze that claimed seven lives, there is fresh talk about whether sprinklers should be required in private homes.

Several coastal officials, including Ocean Isle Beach Mayor Debbie Smith, expect the issue to be taken up by their communities in the next few weeks.

But North Carolina doesn’t require sprinklers in single-family homes or duplexes, and any change could require action by the N.C. Building Code Council or a bill in the General Assembly.

A push by the N.C. Department of Insurance and other states this summer to have the requirement adopted by the International Code Council, which is the basis for most state building codes, also hasn’t gone anywhere, said agency spokeswoman Kristin Milam.

Yet the evidence is overwhelming that sprinkler systems work, helping save property and, more importantly, save lives.

But will that be enough to convince a skeptical development community and homebuyers watching the bottom line that the systems are worth it?

“In America we have something we call teachable moments. That is because the public attention and the news media’s attention is short,” Jones said. “So when the public and media’s attention is focused, that’s the time to educate.”

Deputy U.S. Fire Administrator Charlie Dickinson agrees that the Ocean Isle Beach tragedy represents an opportunity.

“This isn’t about pointing fingers,” he said from Washington on Tuesday. “This is about another tragedy in America’s history of fire and how we learn from this.”

Dickinson said there are reams of evidence, from suburban Washington to the Arizona desert, showing that residential sprinkler systems work.

“Are they fail-safe? Nothing that’s ever been built is fail-safe,” he said. “But we know by the data itself that they help save lives.”

Scottsdale, Ariz., is often held up as the poster child for a community that bucked the skeptics and forced all new homes to have sprinkler systems.

That was in 1985.

In a 2001 study looking at the first 15 years of the program, Scottsdale officials determined that fire losses at homes with sprinklers were $3,534 versus $45,019 at properties without sprinklers.

More importantly, the civilian fire-fatality rate had been reduced by more than 50 percent, with at least 13 lives saved.

Sprinkler systems, unlike smoke detectors, are triggered by heat.

Dwayne Shults, vice president of Williams Fire Sprinkler Co. in Williston, N.C., said sprinklers don’t all go off at once, but are room-specific depending on where the heat source is located.

And contrary to popular opinion, sprinkler systems don’t stress local water systems because they are hardly ever in use.

“Sprinklers are standby systems,” Shults said. “They don’t use water unless you have a fire.”

He said residential systems generally cost $2 to $4 per square foot in new homes, spray about 15 gallons per sprinkler head when in use, and can be made to largely blend in with ceilings.

“Today you put one in for the same cost of a high-quality carpet,” Jones said. “So why wouldn’t you do that to protect your family?”

But Shults estimated that residential work accounts for less than 2 percent of his company’s business and is largely limited to high-end construction.

“It’s certainly not an everyday occurrence,” he said.

Nick Garrett, a Wilmington developer and custom-home builder, agreed.

“Do most people do them or ask about them? No,” he said – although he added that he’s voluntarily installing them in some homes in his new Landfall development after some Wilmington officials raised concerns about access for emergency vehicles.

One common concern is that wet systems can sometimes leak, a problem in vacation homes that aren’t occupied year-round – although new “dry” sprinkler systems fill with water only when activated.

Garrett said monitored fire alarm systems, which automatically notify the alarm company if a smoke detector goes off, also can help in fire safety efforts.

Bald Head Island has had a requirement since the mid-1990s that all new homes on the resort island have monitored systems.

Village Fire Chief Chip Munna said sprinkler systems can help knock back and control a fire when it’s still in its infancy, buying people time to get out and emergency crews time to respond.

Wilmington Assistant Fire Chief Frank Blackley, who also is president of the N.C. Fire Marshal’s Association, stressed that residential sprinkler systems don’t stop all house fires or fatalities.

But he said it’s been proven time and time again that they can buy time – and save lives.

“Most people think fire happens to someone else, that it’s not going to happen to me,” he said.

“But where do people die? They die in their homes for the most part, where they feel the safest. They don’t die in commercial buildings.”

Gareth McGrath: 343-2384

[email protected]