Courtesy of The Sun Sentinel
Published May 21, 2019
Man discovered fire hundreds of thousands of years ago.
And for almost that long, or so it seems, politicians and taxpayers in
Florida have been arguing about fire. It’s fire safety, to be specific, and
whether high-rise condos should be required to be retrofitted with sprinkler
systems in case of fire.
To fire safety experts, this is a matter of life and death. To condo unit
owners, it’s a matter of money, and they vote.
Can you guess who’s winning?
Condo buildings taller than 75 feet must have sprinkler systems or, as an
alternative, emergency life safety systems to meet a Jan. 1, 2020, deadline.
Condo owners can vote to opt out of sprinklers by majority vote, but the
deadline remains controversial and could be expensive.
Cost estimates of sprinklers vary wildly, from $1,500 to $20,000 per condo
You could sit in a cave and rub two sticks together for 10 years and not
come close to the amount of time the Legislature has spent dithering over
this. The subject has been around for 19 years, since a statewide fire code
first required sprinklers. The past three governors — three! — have vetoed
the Legislature’s extension of deadlines.
When it comes to all talk and no action in the Legislature, no other issue
In 2006, Jeb Bush’s last year as governor, the Legislature voted to push
back the sprinkler deadline to 2025. Bush vetoed what he called “an
arbitrary postponement of an already distant time frame” and said the change
“presents an unacceptable safety risk, especially to Florida’s many elderly
In 2006, former Gov. Jeb Bush vetoed an extension of a deadline for
high-rise condos to be retrofitted with fire safety sprinklers. Thirteen
years later, the battle still rages.
Bush’s successor, Gov. Charlie Crist, vetoed another extension in 2010, and
former Gov. Rick Scott kept the string going two years ago, when he vetoed
an extension soon after a massive fire in a high-rise in London killed
dozens of people.
“While I am particularly sensitive to regulations that increase the cost of
living, the recent London high-rise fire, which tragically took at least 79
lives, illustrates the importance of life safety protections,” wrote Scott,
who throughout his eight-year tenure was such a critic of state regulations
that he abolished the growth management agency.
In the session that ended May 4, lawmakers bowed to pressure once more and
voted to extend the deadline to 2024. The extension language is in a bill (HB
7103) dealing with affordable housing and growth management that’s soon
headed to Gov. Ron DeSantis.
Fire chiefs, fire marshals and the sprinkler industry all support sprinkler
requirements. But opposing condo owners have joined forces as a Fort
Lauderdale-based umbrella group called FACTSS (Florida Association of
Condominiums to Support Self-Determination). The group’s web site,
factss.org, invites new members to join the cause for $1,000.
FACTSS’ champion in Tallahassee is Ellyn Bogdanoff, a former Broward County
legislator. “We have to measure safety against cost every day of our lives,”
she said. “We have to make choices.”
Opposition to sprinklers is most intense along Fort Lauderdale’s Galt Ocean
Mile, where dozens of high-rise towers face the Atlantic Ocean.
As the perennial debate over the issue began in March, fire broke out on the
seventh floor of the Intracoastal Towers in Pompano Beach.
An 80-year-old resident died of smoke inhalation when he was trapped in a
bathroom, and more than 100 people were forced to flee their condos. A city
fire official, Michael Hohl, said the damage would have been less severe if
the building had a sprinkler system.
“It’s sad, but you can’t put a value on human life,” said Jon Pasqualone,
executive director of a state association of fire marshals and fire
inspectors. “We’ve literally been battling this for 19 years.”
As debate wore on, thousands of condo residents flooded lawmakers with
emails, asking that the sprinkler deadline be extended again, or else their
quality of life would be ruined.
“Condominium owners throughout the state of Florida will suffer financial
hardships, be forced to move, file for bankruptcy, impact the real estate
market and force many condo associations into receivership,” Eugenia Timmermans of Pompano Beach wrote in a typical letter to lawmakers.
The latest compromise requires the state fire marshal to find out, by city
and county, how many high-rise condos in Florida lack sprinklers, and to
report the findings to the Legislature next year.
Looking back, it’s easy to see that if the first deadline had never been
extended, the sprinklers would have been installed long ago and the debate
would be over.
But it’s a long way from being resolved, if ever.
“This can is being kicked,” said Republican Sen. Ed Hooper of Clearwater, a
retired firefighter who sponsored this year’s original bill.
But this isn’t kicking the can down the road. It’s kicking it from Fort
Lauderdale to Tallahassee and back, over and over again, with no end in