Condo residents worried about financial troubles to possibly result from fire safety bill

Fire inspector says sprinklers save lives

FORT LAUDERDALE, Fla. – When it comes to condo living, Florida ranks as one of the states with the most buildings per capita in the nation.

Much of that growth has come in the past two decades, but there are thousands of buildings that have been in the area dating back 30 years or more.

Residents of some of the buildings are caught in the throes of a legislative battle involving a fire safety bill that may cost them thousands of dollars or even force them out of their homes.

"Our mission is to get residents out of a building if there's a fire. We also have to protect our firefighters going into these buildings," said Jon Pasqualone, of the Florida Fire Marshals Inspectors Association.

Pasqualone said data going back 17 years shows fire sprinklers can make a lifesaving difference.

"There was over 1,100 fires documented with 10 fire fatalities in buildings that were not fire sprinklered," he said.

During that same time, there were no deaths from another 600 fires in buildings with sprinklers.

"So that tells us sprinklers work," Pasqualone said.

This past spring, Gov. Rick Scott vetoed a bill that would have allowed condos 75 feet or taller and built before 1994 to opt out of sprinkler systems.

"The veto really, frankly, came as a surprise," Florida Rep. George Moraitis, R-Fort Lauderdale, said.

"The reality is all our buildings have the right to self-determination, which is if we wish to do or not wish to do," said Pio Leraci, president of the Galt Mile Community Association.

The Galt Mile Community Association represents 28 high-rise buildings and more than 15,000 residents.

"So it affects a large amount of people in a very small area. So now extrapolate this to the state of Florida," Leraci said.

Moraitis was co-sponsor of the bill that would've allowed older condos to opt out of retrofitting with sprinklers or other expensive options.

"No one wants to see anyone's life lost," he said. "We understand that and I respect the fire marshal's office, that's there opinion about it, but you have to have some sort of balancing test. You could have 15 airbags in your car, you could over-engineer just about everything, but the question is: is it worth the expense?"
"We've seen estimates of anywhere from $15,000 to $20,000 per owner," said Fred Nesbitt, president of Playa Del Sol.

Association attorney Donna Berger said the logistics of actually installing a system are problematic.

Nesbitt said his building passes safety inspections every year, but constantly meeting new codes would be a never-ending nightmare.

"We could be re-doing and redoing and redoing the building, and they say, 'Oh, there's a new code this year. You have to redo it again,'" he said. 

"We want to be participants in a solution, not contributors to a problem," Pasqualone said.

Berger said creating a task force to come up with solutions would be a good start.

"If the conclusion is ultimately reached that opting out of sprinklers is not an option, then what we have to focus on is giving these buildings time to comply and resources to comply," Berger said.

Some of those resources could include tax incentives and low interest loans to help residents pay for the retrofits, but the battle is far from over.

The opt out bill will be back before the governor when the next legislative session gets underway in January.