COLUMBIA, SC (WIS) - A group of South Carolina senators want to change the way the State Fire Marshal's Office does business. A legislative investigation showed the office abused its power, and its policies caused businesses to spend hundreds of thousands of dollars, for no reason. A Columbia fire supply company was one of the businesses.
It's a way for life for Carolina Fire Safety. The company has called Columbia home for more than 50 years, selling and maintaining fire equipment. Companies like this are regulated by the state fire marshal's office.
"They have our livelihood in their hands," said Carolina Fire Safety Vice President Sheri Hair. "They could shut our doors if they wanted to; that's extremely intimidating and scary."
That's exactly what state auditors found when they opened an investigation into the agency several months ago. Two weeks ago, auditors told a senate panel the agency made mistakes in interpreting fire codes, enforced inconsistently, and abused its power in enforcing fire laws.
"I've been around 31 years and I don't know that we've run across any enforcement like this," said Legislative Audit Council Director Tom Bardin.
A major problem auditors found was a lack of communication of fire codes between the state fire marshals and equipment suppliers. "If we're not told what a regulation is, if we're not notified by the Office of the State Fire Marshal, basically what that does is, we're out there doing business with the customer and we may be doing something that is against the Office of the State Fire Marshal and that sets us up for failure," said Hair.
Not to mention expensive fines, license suspensions or revocations. Auditors say the fire marshal's failure in code communication has cost businesses across the state thousands of dollars, because the public can't access the codes to educate themselves on the fire laws.
"This is a fire extinguisher manufactured in 2005 and what we've got here is a fire extinguisher company that did a fire extinguisher maintenance in 2007," said Bardin. "It was done four years early."
And it cost the owner of this extinguisher money he didn't have to spend. Had the owner known the fire law, he could have saved himself.
Auditors interviewed several fire suppliers across the state, and heard several stories about intimidation and retaliation at the hands of the State Fire Marshal's Office.
Hair knows of those stories, too. "I really don't feel comfortable speaking of any incidents that I'm aware of," she said. "It's not in my best interest to do so."
Senators want to end those stories when they work to restructure the State Fire Marshal's Office next year.