New fire codes didn't apply to cabin

Some state, county regulations not effective retroactively
Apr. 16, 2014 @ 11:53 PM

When Sevier County and the state of Tennessee adopted building codes for the first time in 2009, the regulations included several new requirements for rental cabins like the one that burned down Saturday. Most of those regulations, however, didn’t apply to cabins that had already been built.

The three-story, seven-bedroom cabin was occupied by an extended family of 22 people at the time of the fire. A five-year-old child from the family is missing and believed to have died in the blaze, and a 56-year-old man died after escaping the house.

County records indicate the cabin was built in 2004. The county adopted new building codes, which included a requirement that rental cabins have sprinklers and other safety regulations, in March 2009.

The state has also adopted new regulations since the cabin was built. There are several industry standards, and while each of them is updated regularly, the state switched to a new set of codes in 2008. A spokesperson for the state fire marshal’s office said Wednesday they are still looking at the older codes to see what standards would have applied at the time of construction.

“We’re still looking through the different iterations of past codes,” Katelyn Abernathy said.

While many of the regulations weren’t retroactive, a few were.

“(In) new and existing cabins ... all bedrooms and living spaces should have one emergency escape window,” she said. There are exceptions to the emergency escape window for certain circumstances.

Family members in Saturday’s fire told investigators they had to break out windows to escape the fire, which started near the main entrance to the cabin. It wasn’t clear Tuesday if the windows in the cabin met that requirement.

The state has adopted a requirement for rental cabins that size to have automated sprinklers, but that didn’t apply to the one in the fire because it was built prior to the adoption of that code.

The cabin reportedly had smoke alarms but no sprinkler system. Local officials have said they believe that would have met the requirements under the old state regulations, but that they were also talking with state officials to confirm that.

The cause of the fire is unknown. Since the debris cooled, state and local investigators have been focused on recovering the remains of 5-year-old Tyveon Temple.

The county also has not required older cabins to come into compliance with all of its new codes. Sevier County has thousands of rental cabins, and County Planner Jeff Ownby said it isn’t feasible to inspect all of them after each update or to have owners bring them into compliance with regulations that didn’t exist when they were built.

“There are thousands of rental cabins in this county,” he said. "It would be virtually impossible to go back and require all of them to meet the current codes.”

The only way for potential guests to find out whether the cabin they’re considering meets the newest codes is to ask the owner or the agency responsible for renting it, said County Building Inspector Chris Jenkins.

“I think they’ll have to ask the rental company, and it comes back to disclosure,” he said.

Jenkins said he tries to encourage the owners of older cabins to keep new regulations in mind and to consider upgrading their cabins to make them safer.

“We’re constantly talking with rental cabin companies about the need for multiple exits, and having sprinkler systems,” he said.

The new regulations also call for the companies or cabin owners to keep grills 10 feet away from combustible materials, meaning they shouldn’t have grills on the decks of log cabins, he noted.