CLEARWATER - When Lilian Thomas ran the Child's Play day care center in Graniteville, she often was frustrated by how long it took to have a state fire marshal come out for the required annual inspection of her facility.
"We had tremendous delays getting it," said Ms. Thomas, who closed the center late last year and now operates Midland Valley Preparatory School at the same location. "One of the critical things is keeping your center licensed, and they're so backed up there's no telling when you'll get that fire marshal inspection - it could be six weeks. It's extremely important to have these done; you're talking about small children."
Long waits for fire inspections at some of Aiken County's most vulnerable public occupancy buildings - day care centers and public schools - could prompt a change in who carries out those inspections.
South Carolina's widely varying fire-code enforcement has been under increased public scrutiny since a hotel fire in Greenville killed six people in January.
The South Carolina Office of the State Fire Marshal, which typically inspects the state's 1,200 public schools and 2,057 day care centers, is surveying local fire officials to determine whether fire departments can perform their own day care inspections.
But in the patchwork quilt that makes up fire inspections in South Carolina, many of Aiken County's 22 fire districts - almost all run by unpaid volunteers - rely heavily on state officials for inspections. Many don't have the time, manpower or funds to train firefighters to carry out the inspections properly.
"They're stretched thin just fighting fires and answering first responder calls," said Aiken Department of Public Safety Sgt. Bob Besley, who as a certified resident fire marshal carries out most public occupancy fire inspections within the city of Aiken's fire district. "It's tough for a volunteer to do that."
In contrast, Georgia has a 100-person state fire marshal's department, including 15 arson investigators and 54 inspectors charged with checking schools, public buildings, hospitals, nursing homes, manufactured housing factories and hazardous materials, said Wayne Whitaker, the spokesman for Georgia Insurance and Safety Fire Commissioner John Oxendine, who appoints the state fire marshal.
Ten urban Georgia counties, including Richmond and Columbia, have their own full-time inspectors.
Most local officials familiar with the fire inspection process in the Palmetto State say the state fire marshal's office, with only 15 deputy fire marshals covering all of South Carolina and thousands of public occupancy buildings, is overburdened and stretched thin.
The official who oversees the office disagrees.
"We're managing to keep our head above water," said John Reich, the deputy director for the state Division of Fire and Life Safety.
"There's only so much work one person can do in a day, but right now we're meeting everyone's needs."
Mr. Reich said delays in inspecting day care centers could be blamed on the bureaucratic process that has inspection requests routed through the state Department of Social Services before they end up on a state fire marshal's desk.
He says inspection requests are time-stamped and carried out within 10 days of receipt, and he denies that the office has had day care centers waiting as long as four months for an inspection, as an employee of one Warrenville center has alleged. But Mr. Reich acknowledged that the office is looking at the possibility of shifting day care inspections to local municipalities.
"We're out there conducting a survey, but if they are not capable or not able to do it, we are not dumping anything on them," Mr. Reich said. "We will continue to provide that service."
The city of Aiken, with one of the best fire-safety ratings in the state, is well covered when it comes to fire inspections. But the outlying areas and small hamlets of Aiken County, with their often undermanned, underfunded volunteer fire departments, have spotty inspection records.
The Clearwater Volunteer Fire Department is a shining exception.
Volunteers David Felder and Chris Rockwell will soon enroll in training to become state-licensed resident fire marshals.
Already, they conduct inspections each week of the district's roughly 50 businesses using an adopted combination of state and nationally recommended fire codes.
But Clearwater, they say, doesn't reflect the norm when it comes to local fire inspections in rural Aiken County.
"I'd say right now we're ahead of everybody else," Mr. Rockwell said.
Mr. Felder said: "I was in a business in another part of the county last week, and I noticed it had merchandise blocking exits. It was really obvious."
No one is pointing fingers of blame at the departments that elect to carry out minimal inspections. Most understand the reality that not every volunteer department has the manpower or time to operate an aggressive inspection program.
Mr. Felder and Mr. Rockwell say they would like to see a state fund set up to pay for fire marshal training, especially if rural departments are going to be called on to do more.
"It's costing us $1,500, and the majority of that is for materials," Mr. Rockwell said.
Even the city of Aiken, with its progressive fire codes and regular inspection schedule, has turned school inspection duties back to the state fire marshal's office because of manpower issues, Sgt. Besley said.
Mr. Reich says state fire marshals try to visit each school once every two years and do follow-up compliance checks.
"Ideally, I would like to go through them in a one-year cycle," he said.
Overwhelmed or not, the state fire marshal's office is heading toward change, and the result could be more inspection duties for local agencies. Not everyone thinks that's a bad idea.
"In my opinion, turning (inspections) over to local agencies would be a much better option," said Ms. Thomas, the school administrator. "I think it's very important to have some sort of timely inspection process, and it needs to be someone who is trained and certified."
FIRE SAFETY SHORTFALL
Source: South Carolina and Georgia state fire marshals' offices
Reach Stephen Gurr at (803) 648-1395, ext. 110, or firstname.lastname@example.org.
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