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    Condo was considering sprinklers

    By ADRIENNE P. SAMUELS
    © St. Petersburg Times
    published July 2, 2002

    CLEARWATER -- Just days before a fatal fire in an Island Estates highrise, the building's condominium board met with the city's fire marshal to discuss installing sprinklers in the 11-story building.

    It was going to take a few years and about $400,000, so the board met with Fire Marshal Randy Hinder June 25 to figure out the best way to bring their older building up to date with the state's fire code. Three days later, two people died and several were injured Friday in a fifth-floor fire that reached 1,000 degrees.

    "It's a hell of a coincidence," Hinder said. "They needed additional information. They were asking some very relevant questions. We were in the process."

    The building at 255 Dolphin Point was built in 1974, before state codes required sprinklers in new buildings. But as of January 2002, all buildings 75 feet or taller are required to start the sprinkler installation process.

    The law gives buildings 12 years to finish installing the equipment.

    Ninety-eight percent of all fires in buildings with sprinklers are contained before they spread, said Clearwater Fire Chief Rowland Herald.

    "It's the next best thing to having a fireman right there," Herald said.

    Clearwater's Fire Department in January sent certified letters to 49 city highrise buildings identified as possibly being in need of sprinklers, Hinder said. Each condo association or hotel was informed of the state law and asked to start drafting a sprinkler management plan.

    So far, 26 have responded. Dolphin Cove was getting ready to officially respond when tragedy struck.

    Clearwater is taking steps toward what has become known as "sprinkler retrofitting," fire officials said, by contacting the buildings that need new equipment and following up with each one.

    City residents are responding well to the program, Hinder said. The Fire Department has a telephone answer line for people with questions about their building's status. In most cases, residents are encouraged to consult their building manager or association before leaving a message for the department.

    The fire department says it understands that sprinkler retrofitting is expensive, but residents need to understand that no building is fireproof. The condo at Dolphin Cove burned because of fuel like carpeting and couches, Hinder said.

    "I've had phone calls from across the state . . . going "Wow, it can happen and it did happen.' " Hinder said. "The outcome would have been different if there were sprinklers."

    -- Staff writer Jennifer Farrell contributed to this report. Adrienne Samuels can be reached at 445-4157 or samuels@sptimes.com.

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