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Senate panel wants sprinkler law relaxed

Condo owners should have a say-so in the costly installation of the fire safety equipment, a Senate committee decides.

Published April 8, 2003

TALLAHASSEE - Rebuffing stern warnings from firefighters, a Florida Senate committee Monday endorsed relaxing a state law mandating that older high-rise buildings install fire sprinklers.

By a 6-2 vote, the Committee on Comprehensive Planning agreed that condominium owners should be allowed to ignore the 1998 law if two-thirds agree they don't want sprinklers in their homes.

State lawmakers took up the cause this year after condominium owners complained of having to pay thousands of dollars to comply.

Current law requires all buildings taller than 75 feet to have fire sprinklers by 2014.

The Senate proposal (SB 1978), sponsored by Evelyn Lynn, R-Ormond Beach, would still require sprinklers in all common areas, splitting from the House proposal sponsored by Rep. Connie Mack, R-Fort Lauderdale.

Mack, who initiated relaxing the standards, wants condominium owners to be able to bypass sprinklers altogether if they choose. A House committee approved the measure (HB 165), which is likely to be heard by the full House.

The Senate's endorsement came despite concerns from Don Goff, a fire marshal for Hillsborough County Fire Rescue, who was speaking on behalf of the Florida Fire Marshals Association. Goff asked them to delay a vote until they had more time to study the costs and consequences.

Committee Chairman Steven Geller, D-Hallandale Beach, bristled when Goff accused the panel of putting "special interests" above safety.

"The only special interest I'm considering are my voters," Geller said. Firefighters dispute costs being cited by lobbyists, who say some condominiums are being asked to pay as much as $50,000 per floor.

At the Prelude 80 condominiums in Clearwater, residents expect to pay $250,000 to retrofit the 15-story building. That's $150,000 to install sprinklers in all 53 units and $100,000 for sprinklers in common areas plus an additional alarm and fire doors - about $4,700 a unit.

Goff and other fire officials say there have never been multiple deaths caused by a fire in a building with sprinklers, and that they need to be in units because most home fires start in the kitchen.

That's where last year's fire at the Dolphin Cove condominiums in Clearwater began. Fire marshals say a single sprinkler head might have extinguished or controlled the stove fire that resulted in two deaths and seven injuries, including five firefighters.

Fire officials say lawmakers are putting safety issues in the hands of people without expertise to make informed decisions and are putting firefighters at risk.

"All we are asking is that they have an unbiased study before they pass any law," Goff said.

Geller said lawmakers could do nothing and leave people facing a big expense, or follow Mack's direction and remove the mandate completely.

The committee rejected another idea last week to make the vote subject to approval by a local fire department. "I think we came up with a good compromise," Geller said. "It's a lower cost and at least they have a safe path of escape."

What's next?

SB 1978 is scheduled to be heard next by the Senate Committee on Banking and Insurance.

[Last modified April 8, 2003, 01:31:46]

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