Condo owners, firefighters at odds over sprinkler requirements

1280px-Sprinkler_-_by_Adrian_Sampson
If lawmakers don’t act this session, condo owners face a Jan. 1 deadline to get up to code.

The final week of the Legislative Session could finally bring an end to a long-running battle over condo fire sprinklers.

In the 1990s, Florida law was changed to require all new high-rises in the state be outfitted with fire sprinkler systems. A decade or so later, existing hotels and timeshare complexes over 75 feet tall had to comply with the same rule, and they did.

But condominium complexes were given a grace period so owners could plan for the cost of retrofitting units and complexes could hash out how to update common areas, and in 2003 a law was passed allowing owners to opt out of the retrofit with a vote.

The deadline has been pushed back a couple of times since then, but if lawmakers don’t act this session, condo owners face a Jan. 1, 2020, deadline to get up to code.

The Legislature is considering two different plans to finally put the issue to bed.

The bill advancing through the Senate aligns with Florida firefighters and the Florida Fire Sprinkler Association, while the House’s preferred plan is on the side of condominium owners.

SB 908, sponsored by Clearwater Republican Sen. Ed Hooper, would set benchmarks for complexes to get sprinkler systems installed, extending the runway for final completion out to Jan. 1, 2024.

Firefighters say the bill would make their jobs safer — getting up to the 20th floor of a burning building is a tall order that’s only made more difficult if a fire is raging unabated.

HB 647 by Miami Beach Democratic Rep. Mike Grieco, would set the date at Jan. 1, 2023, however, it would also allow condo associations to forgo installing fire safety systems altogether with a two-thirds vote among owners. Current law allows associations to kick the can down the road with a simple majority.

The key reason condo owners want to keep the opt-out is cost.

The price to retrofit a building with fire sprinklers varies based on the type of system and how visible it would be. No one is suggesting condo complexes get makeovers a la Terry Gilliam’s “Brazil,” but tearing up walls and ceilings to install pipes can cost some serious cash.

According to Ellyn Bogdanoff, a former Senator and lobbyist representing condo associations, the retrofits can stretch past the five-figure mark per unit. And common area renovations just pile on to that burden.

“This is a big government mandate that will punish seniors on a fixed income,” she said of the Senate plan.

Tim Meenan, who represents the Florida Fire Sprinkler Association, says those estimates are way off base.

Newer systems can run along the where wall meets ceiling and can be concealed by crown molding and, according to a 2009 Department of Business and Professional Regulation study, would set the average condo owner back about $1,350. Taking care of the common areas would add another $947 to their tab.

While it’s not particularly cheap, it’s a lot less than the multibillion-dollar total tossed out by opponents of the bill.

Since the sprinkler requirements went into effect, only about 4,000 associations have submitted opt-out votes to DBPR and among those are several complexes that don’t meet the 75-foot threshold for the rules to apply.

Language included in the Senate bill that’s backed by state CFO and Fire Marshal Jimmy Patronis, would require local fire marshals count up the number of buildings in their jurisdictions for an accurate statewide total

It’s unclear which track the Legislature will take, but Meenan says Hooper, himself a former firefighter, won’t let Grieco’s bill get by him without a fight.

Drew Wilson

Drew Wilson covers legislative campaigns and fundraising for Florida Politics. He is a former editor at The Independent Florida Alligator and business correspondent at The Hollywood Reporter. Wilson, a University of Florida alumnus, covered the state economy and Legislature for LobbyTools and The Florida Current prior to joining Florida Politics.


3 comments

  • Fred Nesbitt

    April 26, 2019 at 10:00 am

    We support HB 647 that gives condo and coop associations the right to opt-out of the Engineered Life Safety System (ELSS). The state legislature in 2010 gave association owners the statutory right to vote to opt-out of retrofitting sprinklers and ELSS is just another way of circumventing that right given to our owners. We have, over the years, spent millions of dollars to upgrade and improve fire safety technology in our buildings.
    Financial costs of ELSS will displace thousands of elderly and fixed-income residents in the 4,300 buildings who opted-out of sprinklers. In testimony before a House committee, a 93- unit building received bids of $1 to $1.7 million to install an ELSS – that’s between $10,000 to $18,000 per unit. Similar bids have been received by other associations across Florida. These are real costs – not guesses.
    Those advocating for an ELSS have now admitted that the costs of ELSS will far outweigh any insurance savings, even over 10 years. Even if buildings opt-out of ELSS, they will still be required to comply with Chapter 31, which provides for additional fire safety measures. Please do not place additional and unnecessary financial burdens on seniors living in high-rise buildings. Let them decide.

    • FireBuddy

      April 26, 2019 at 12:08 pm

      The 2016 Legislature provided a tool to help condominium associations determine the least cost solution to meet safety requirements that have been in place since 2000. The validated Fire Safety Evaluation System referenced by law has been used by numerous condominium associations resulting in safety upgrade costs that are 10-15% of the millions of dollar guesstimates you share – many under $1,000 per unit. Tim Meenan said it best in the article by stating fire sprinkler piping can be installed at the ceiling and wall crease and covered with crown molding. If you want to spend $2 million to rip out ceilings that is your choice but using inflated worst case bids over actual retrofit costs is not in your liability exposure interests. Is your property covered by Citizens Insurance? Why should every property owners insurance policy be taxed to underwrite an insurance company that is forced to provide coverage for properties that choose to remain at high risk?

    • ld124

      April 26, 2019 at 6:09 pm

      Can firefighters or other first responders opt out by majority vote entering high rise buildings where adequate fire fighting infrastructure doesn’t exist? Seems to me short shrift being paid to them.

Comments are closed.


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