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Motel fire deaths spur tougher fire-safety rules

By Daniel Silliman

dsilliman@news-daily.com

Owners of motels and hotels in Clayton County soon must fit, or retrofit, their lodging facilities with sprinkler systems.

Commissioners passed the new measure to mandate sprinklers in hotels and motels previously exempted from the existing fire-safety code.

Pushed by Clayton County Fire Chief Alex Cohilas, the modified rules require sprinklers in the attics of all motels and hotels in unincorporated Clayton, along with the cities of Jonesboro and Lovejoy.

Cohilas hopes the change will prevent fires like the one that devastated an extended-stay motel in Riverdale last June, killing five and injuring six.

The county had required sprinkler systems in the attics of motels built after 2003, but didn't apply the standard retroactively.

The sprinklers suppress fire in attics where a blaze can quickly spread across a building, passing by interior fire alarms, and consuming a structure.

In June 2007, a stack of old, abandoned mattresses behind the Budget Inn in Riverdale were reportedly set on fire. The flames traveled up the exterior wall of the pre-2003 building, entering the attic and destroying the building.

The motel was built according to the codes of the day, and had passed inspection. At the scene of the fire, as firefighters hosed the smoldering remains of the structure and Red Cross volunteers tried to organize the displaced residents, Cohilas complained that bad building codes contributed to the lives lost.

"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."

The resolution was passed on Tuesday night with a 4-0 vote. Commissioner Virginia Gray wasn't present at the meeting.

Cohilas said he expects the rule to impact six motels, and said he hopes the other cities in the country will enact similar rules.

The resolution also contains a change requiring attic sprinklers in the new construction of single-family homes built closer than 15-feet apart. The rule will treat densely-packed, single-family homes as multi-family buildings.

The county is currently looking at zoning rules, however, that wouldn't allow such tightly-spaced construction.