state laws that no longer require condo associations to retrofit fire safety
sprinklers in older high-rises -- if most owners agree -- have sparked safety
Article Courtesy of The Miami
By Donna Gehrke
October 9, 2010
In the months ahead, many residents of older
high-rise condos will be deciding whether they want to buy a potentially
expensive fire safety sprinkler system or save the money.
A state law that took effect July 1 is allowing
residents in older buildings to say no to retrofitting their buildings
for sprinklers as long as a majority of owners agree. Some condo
association attorneys are already meeting with residents to discuss the
new law's impact.
Miami Beach's chief fire prevention analyst Sonni
Moore is urging condo owners to put lives ahead of money and install the
"You just never know when a situation might
affect your family,'' Moore said.
Others, however, contend that their condo
buildings -- at least for now -- can't afford the sprinklers, not when
they are facing foreclosures and fewer people to help pay for
maintaining the high-rises.
"It is a big expense,'' said Joseph Buerk,
president of the 61-unit, 10-floor Seacrest Towers Condominiums in
Pompano Beach, who plans to ask owners to vote to opt out of installing
sprinklers. He noted that his 39-year-old building is made of stucco and
concrete, not of more fire-prone wood.
"We have foreclosed units,'' Buerk said.
"We are fortunate that we don't have as many as other buildings.
But installing the sprinklers would be a burden.''
The controversial sprinkler exemption is part of a
new batch of laws that took effect July 1 in an effort to make condo
living more affordable in a tight economy. Now the state doesn't require
owners to insure their unit's contents.
Florida also has reversed itself and no longer
requires high-rises to have at least one generator-run elevator during
power outages that occur during a major storm as long as a majority
agrees that it is not needed.
This has alarmed some fire officials and
grass-roots activists who worry that older South Florida condos would
not be prepared for a major fire or another major hurricane like 2005's
Wilma, which destroyed thousands of condo units and left many buildings
without power for weeks.
"Remember the old folks had to be carried
down the stairs,'' said Jan Bergemann, president and founder of the
statewide, grass-roots Cyber Citizens for Justice.
Others say many condo owners in older high-rise
buildings can't afford costly assessments for the sprinklers and
generators. Plus, condo owners say they, not the state, should decide
how they spend their money.
"It's all about choice,'' said Donna Berger,
an attorney and executive director of Community Advocacy Network.
The new law allows high-rise buildings of more
than 75 feet to opt out of installing the sprinkler system as long as a
majority of owners vote for that by 2016. If they do not vote by then,
the owners will have to chip in to pay for the sprinklers.
Neither the new law nor the old one that required
sprinkler retrofitting covered shorter buildings where fires have broken
A Labor Day fire, for example, claimed the life of
an elderly tenant of a two-story condo building in Lauderhill.
Firefighters blamed the woman's clutter -- belongings filled the unit's
hallway to all but about an 18-inch passageway -- as hindering their
rescue efforts. Last May, fire destroyed another building in the same
complex but there were no injuries. Both buildings were without
Even if high-rise communities vote not to install
the sprinklers, their buildings will still have to have a safety system
that passes inspection by local fire departments, said attorney Ken
Direktor, chairman of the Community Practice Group for the Fort
Lauderdale-based Becker & Poliakoff law firm. Owners living in a
high-rise can vote again in three years to install the sprinklers if
they change their minds.
Miami Beach safety analyst Moore said fire
departments routinely put out fires in high-rises. The buildings that
had sprinklers kept the fires from spreading to other units, he said.
But Buerk, president of the 61-unit Pompano
Beach condo, said the sprinkler retrofitting would be impractical at
his building: The ceilings at his high-rise don't have room for
installing overhead sprinklers. And it might backfire if the
sprinklers didn't work or even went off, causing water damage when
there wasn't a fire, he said.
Lisa Magill, another Becker & Poliakoff
attorney, said other condo leaders fear their buildings would be
damaged during the sprinkler installation. It is much harder to
retrofit than to put ones in new buildings, attorney Berger said.
But Bert Cohen, who lives in a 16-floor condo
complex in Sunny Isles Beach, said he hasn't had any problems since
his association installed sprinklers about 10 years ago.
"I think everyone should have them,'' he
A state report found that several South Florida
condo complexes were able to install sprinklers throughout their
entire complex for about $1,700 per unit or under, including the
Corinthian in Miami Beach and Forest Place Tower in North Miami. Two
Aventura condo complexes, the Biscayne Cover and Biscayne Clipper,
installed sprinklers only in the common areas for as low as $595 per
unit, the report found.
Cyber Citizens for Justice's Bergemann said a
sprinkler system will pay for itself in about six years due to lower
insurance premiums and higher resale prices of units in the
If buildings can't afford sprinklers throughout,
then condo associations should at least install them in older
buildings' hallways and lobbies to give people a place to escape to,
Condo owners who do not live in high-rises said
at a recent Pembroke Pines town hall meeting that they were more
concerned about the state's other new condo provisions, such as one
that doesn't require owners to insure the inside of their condo unit.
By law, a condominium association is required to
insure and make any repairs to its building's roof, walls, windows,
doors, foundation and electrical wiring. That leaves the individual
unit owners responsible for kitchen cabinets, countertops, window
treatments, wallpaper, rugs and other contents in their unit.
Attorney Magill recommended insuring even if the
state doesn't require it.
"I think everyone should have insurance,''
Bergemann agreed. "Don't forget if you live below a unit where a
guy's washer hose breaks and your unit is flooded you will pay for the
damages, because he didn't do it on purpose and you can't prove