Fire chief wants sprinklers in older motels

By Daniel Silliman


The Clayton County fire chief is pushing for tougher fire-safety codes.

Citing the motel fire that killed five people in Riverdale last year, Chief Alex Cohilas proposed an ordinance to the county commissioners at the Tuesday night work session, which would require motels and hotels to install sprinkler systems. Currently, new multi-family structures are required to have sprinkler systems in the attic, but those built before the code was in place are grandfathered in.

Cohilas' wants to change that.

According to the fire department's research, there was an average of 16 deaths a year in motel and hotel fires between 1999 and 2002. There were no deaths, though, in hotels and motels equipped with automatic sprinkler systems.

In June 2007, the Budget Inn Motel in Riverdale burned down, killing a five people in a second floor room and injuring four, including two fire fighters. The extended stay motel was built according to the codes of the day, and had passed inspection, but did not have the attic sprinkler system, a system Cohilas and Riverdale Fire Department Chief Billy Hayes believe could have made a dramatic difference.

According to fire investigators, the Budget Inn blaze began outside the motel, burned up the wall and then consumed the attic. Smoke alarms, Cohilas said, would not have gone off until the fire was already fully involved. Only a sprinkler system would have made a difference.

"That has been called the darkest day in Clayton County's history," Cohilas said to the county commissioners. "I was at the funeral and many of the family members asked me what could be done, what could we do to make something good come out of these tragic deaths."

There are currently six motels and hotels in unincorporated Clayton County which would be affected by the new ordinance. If passed, each would have 18 months to install the automatic sprinkler systems.

The ordinance could be passed as early as March.

Commissioner Wole Ralph said that in addition to added fire protection, the proposed ordinance could force increased investments in the county's motels, especially some extended-stay motels which have been problems for the police department.

"I'm excited about this," Ralph said to Cohilas. "Thanks for bringing it to us."