Time is Running Out to Vote on Fire Sprinklers

Special to BHA News by Rosa de la Camara, BHA General Counsel – There are two standards for fire sprinkler retrofitting in the State of Florida: one for high-rises and another for buildings up to four stories in height. The Statute clearly requires high-rise buildings (which are defined as buildings at least 75 feet in height above the lowest point of fire department entry) to retrofit with a sprinkler system unless an opt out vote has been taken and an opt out approved by the members.

Both Chapters 718 and 719, Florida Statutes, which apply to condominiums and cooperatives, respectively, allow the Association to opt out of any requirement to retrofit the common elements and residential units with a fire sprinkler system through a membership vote. The vote required to opt out is a majority of all voting interests in the Association, and the vote must be taken and completed by December 31, 2016. In addition to the vote, there are other notification requirements involving recording and filing with the county and state which must be completed after the vote passes but before the deadline.

If an Association wishes to opt out, it is advisable to take the vote well in advance of December 31st so that it can complete the process before the deadline. If your Association does not timely and successfully complete the opt out vote and other procedural requirements, you are required to start the permit application process and complete the retrofitting process by the end of 2019.

There may be some limits to the Association’s right to opt out. For example, in condominiums which allow short term rentals or have commercial units, even if the owners have successfully opted out, you still might be required to install an engineered life safety system (“ELSS”), the scope of which would be determined by the local fire marshal.

Some confusion had arisen as to whether the requirement to install fire sprinklers applied to condominiums which are not high-rise buildings. This is because the Division of Florida Condominiums, Timeshares and Mobile Homes (“Division”) had been quoted in media articles advising that all multifamily buildings in Florida, regardless of height, must install sprinklers unless they opt out prior to the December 31, 2016 deadline. This seemed at odds with existing laws because the requirement for sprinkler retrofitting arises from Chapter 633 of the Florida Statutes not from either Chapter 718 or 719 where the opt out rights are provided. Chapter 633 of the Florida Statutes incorporates the National Fire Protection Association (“NFPA”) standards. The NFPA requires high-rise buildings to retrofit with sprinklers. There is no blanket requirement that all condominiums and cooperatives in the State of Florida, regardless of height or occupancy or date of construction be equipped with fire sprinklers.

We were very pleased that the Division just recently issued a Memo confirming that the opt out language in Chapters 718 and 719 of the Florida Statutes does not unilaterally impose a sprinkler installation requirement on mid- and low-rise buildings in Florida. Still, regardless of building height, we recommend that you contact your local fire marshal or a fire safety engineer to confirm that your local ordinances impose no retrofitting requirements.

For high-rises which are not exempt from installation of a full sprinkler retrofit, a successful opt out vote will allow those buildings to avoid a full sprinkler installation but it will most likely not allow those buildings to avoid installing an ELSS. Installation of sprinklers and even an ELSS is expensive and planning is needed to budget for this cost. As the December 31, 2016 deadline approaches, it becomes increasingly important that Associations be aware of their rights and responsibilities and make a timely and fully informed decision. •

Rosa de la Camara is shareholder with the law firm Becker & Poliakoff where she has worked for 27 years concentrating her practice on representing community associations and addressing complex issues involving Boards, unit owners, managers and state and local policymakers. She is widely recognized for her well-honed skills and serves as General Counsel to many boards, including BHA.