When it comes to fire safety in residential condominiums, confusion and many questions have emerged surrounding the requirement to retrofit a fire sprinkler. One thing is certain, in order for a qualifying condominium to opt out of the requirement, it must conduct an opt out vote by December 31, 2016.
The Florida Fire Prevention Code is based upon the National Fire Protection Association (“NFPA”) Fire Code, along with the Life Safety code, and requires that all high-rise buildings are to be protected by an approved, automatic fire sprinkler system no later than December 31, 2019. Alternatively, the code also allows for an “Engineered Life Safety System.”
There is one particular area of the law that has sparked confusion amongst Florida residential condominiums:
notwithstanding chapter 633 or of any other code, statute, ordinance, administrative rule, or regulation, or any interpretation of the foregoing, an association, residential condominium, or unit owner is not obligated to retrofit the common elements, association property, or units of a residential condominium with a fire sprinkler system in a building that has been certified for occupancy by the applicable governmental entity if the unit owners have voted to forego such retrofitting by the affirmative vote of a majority of all voting interests in the affected condominium. The local authority having jurisdiction may not require completion of retrofitting with a fire sprinkler system before January 1, 2020. By December 31, 2016, a residential condominium association that is not in compliance with the requirements for a fire sprinkler system and has not voted to forego retrofitting of such a system must initiate an application for a building permit for the required installation with the local government having jurisdiction demonstrating that the association will become compliant by December 31, 2019.
Unfortunately, the Condominium Act does not provide the necessary details to answer whether or not every residential condominium must install fire systems or hold a vote of the owners to opt out, or if the fire sprinkler requirements only apply to associations whose residential condominium buildings are considered high-rise buildings.
What constitutes a high-rise building? NFPA 101 defines a high-rise as any building where the floor of habitable story is greater than 75 feet above the lowest level of fire department vehicle access. While earlier versions of the law contained a clarifying statement similar to the definition mentioned, this text was later amended out of the statute. As you can imagine, the lack of clarification followed by this change made in the text only added to the preexisting confusion about who was mandated to install a fire sprinkler system and who was off the hook.
Non-high rise condominiums should seek the opinion of a qualified professional in order to determine if they are required to install a fire sprinkler system or pursue an opt out vote. If unable to obtain a statement from the State Fire Marshall, an association should make an inquiry to the Bureau of Fire Prevention, Division of the State Fire Marshall, or their local Fire Marshall. They should also seek a legal opinion from the association’s attorney.
For high-rise condominiums, the lines are far less blurred. Those not in compliance with the requirements for a fire sprinkler system and who have not voted to forego retrofitting a system by December 31, 2016 must initiate an application for a building permit for the installation, with intention to become compliant, by December 31st, 2019. However, voting to opt out of the automatic sprinkler system is an option, and if every unit has exterior exit access including balconies, porches, and rooftop decks, they may also be exempted.
In previous years, the legislature pushed back the deadline to opt out. Not so this year. Qualifying condominiums only have seven (7) months to pursue an opt out vote of the membership. If you are unsure whether your condominium is subject to the fire sprinkler retrofitting requirement or how to conduct an opt out vote, please immediately contact your Association’s attorney.