Condo's fire hydrant clears first hurdle in Belleair Beach

Article Courtesy of The St. Petersburg Times

By Sheila Mullane Estrada

Published January 6, 2010

BELLEAIR BEACH Equipment in older buildings often breaks down.

But it is not often that a needed repair involves issues of fire safety, four different governmental agencies and thousands of dollars in potential savings for condominium owners.

The issue replacing an aging fire suppression system with a fire hydrant sounded simple last summer, but months later the 1970s-era Mont Martre Condominium has yet to find a solution.

So far, the condominium's search has involved the city of Belleair Beach, the Pinellas Suncoast Fire and Rescue District, the state fire marshal's office in the Florida Department of Financial Services, and Pinellas County Utilities.

After debating the issue at several meetings, the Belleair Beach City Council on Monday tentatively approved changing its laws to allow the 56-unit Mont Martre, 3500 Gulf Blvd., to replace an interior fire pump and standpipe system with an exterior fire hydrant.

Since the ordinance change would affect all multistory buildings in the city, the council first wants to make sure the state approves replacing interior fire suppression systems with hydrants.

"If they have a disaster there of some sort, will the city be liable? Is there a possibility the city could have a liability issue?" council member Mitchell Krach asked during a recent council discussion of the proposed ordinance.

The city's attorney, Paul Marino, has asked the state for a declaratory statement to clarify the city's potential liability if it allows the fire pump and standpipes to be replaced by fire hydrants and whether a municipality can, as it does now, require stricter fire prevention standards than the state.

Marino says it could take up to three months to get an official answer from the state.

Leslie Mendelson, an attorney for the state fire marshal, did tell Marino the city's pending ordinance change does not appear to present any issues that would concern the state.

The problem started last summer when the Mont Martre Condominium's fire pump controller mechanism failed.

Faced with inoperable fire hoses on each of the condominium's four floors and concerns that a minor fire could quickly expand before fire engines could respond the condominium association first hoped to replace the controller.

That idea was quickly abandoned when it was discovered a new fire pump system would cost more than $10,000, according to Fire District Chief Russell Livernois.

He informed the condominium association that substituting a fire hydrant would be acceptable, but that the association would have to pay the installation and maintenance costs.

Fire hydrants are installed by Pinellas County Utilities, he said, and would cost much less than a new pump system for the building.

Then the association learned the city's codes required the more expensive pump system. So it asked the city to change the law.

The council discussed the issue in November and again in December before giving the first of two approvals Monday.

No one is sure when the final approval will occur or how long it would take to install a hydrant.

Currently, the only water available to fire trucks responding to the building is through a roadside water pipe that fire trucks must first connect to before pumping into its hoses.