Retrofitting Condominiums – The Fiery Debate

Andres Kroboth Condominium

On Sept. 7, 2017, a fire at Waterside at Coquina Key, a two-story condo in Tampa Bay, Fla., killed 25-year-old Zachary Means and injured his roommate, who managed to escape through the second-floor bedroom window.

Could this death have been prevented?

In 2000, Florida adopted a national fire protection code in response to the deadly fires of the 1980’s, which included the fire at MGM Grand in Las Vegas that killed 85 people and an arson in Puerto Rico’s DuPont Plaza where at least 96 died.

Lawmakers gave Florida high-rise condominiums two options. Pursuant to section 718.112(2)(l), a condo association could either retrofit the building with a fire sprinkler system by 2020 or “opt-out” from the compliance requirement with a majority unit owner vote by the end of 2016. Those that missed the “opt-out” deadline are required to submit building permit applications outlining the required installations for the fire sprinkler system that would bring them up to code by 2020.

It is undeniable that sprinklers save lives. From 2000 to January 2017, 10 people died and 82 have been injured in high-rise fires in Florida condominiums without sprinklers. In high-rise fires in condominiums with sprinklers, 43 people were injured and only one died.

However, Waterside at Coquina Key is not a high-rise building. And there lies the problem. By not meeting the 75-feet-tall high-rise threshold, condominiums like Waterside at Coquina Key are not required to comply with the fire safety standards and will most likely not do so if not required.

It would be impossible to know whether a fire sprinkler system would have saved Zachary Means’ life. Nonetheless, this deadly low-rise condominium fire is likely to revive the debate over whether there should be a low-rise exemption, as well as whether those older high-rise condominiums should even be allowed to opt-out of compliance.