Florida drags feet for decades on fire safety for condos

Article Courtesy of The Sun Sentinel

By Steve Bousquet

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 unit.

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 comes close.

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 condominium residents.”

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 sight.