As the deadline for Florida condominiums to opt out of fire sprinkler retrofitting draws near, confusion surrounding the issue continues to grow. Questions of the statute’s applicability to all condominiums as opposed to just high-rise condominiums (buildings in excess of 75 feet in height) continue to arise and many are saying it’s a matter of interpretation.
In an effort to put the debate to rest, the Florida Fire Sprinkler Association (FFSA) and the Florida Chapter of the American Fire Sprinkler Association (AFSA-FL) released a joint statement in August 2016 addressing the issue. But before we look at their input, let’s review the events that prompted the fire sprinkler retrofit requirement in the first place.
According to the statement from the FFSA and AFSA-FL, the retrofit was added to the National model codes as a result of tragic high-rise fires that have occurred throughout the years, bringing to light the limitations of fire departments and their equipment as they pertained to rescuing individuals in high-rise buildings.
Many will remember hearing about the MGM Grand hotel fire, which made national news and resulted in 87 deaths, as well as the DuPont Plaza fire in San Juan that claimed the lives of 97 people. These tragedies served as a reminder that fire department aerial apparatuses and ladders cannot reach beyond 75 feet.
The fire sprinkler retrofit requirement is a National Fire Protection Association (NFPA) 101 Life Safety Code (“Life Safety Code”) incorporated in the Florida Fire Prevention Code some 15 years ago. Though a number of revisions and amendments have occurred since then, as it stands now, Section 718.112 (2)(l) Florida Statute gives high-rise condominiums a choice – they can retrofit their fire sprinklers or opt out of retrofitting. If an association opts out, there is a requirement in the Life Safety Code that the association implement an Engineered Life Safety System (ELSS). If the condominium association opts out of the fire sprinkler retrofit, they are in essence “opting in” to the ELSS. Opting out of the fire sprinkler retrofit without a plan for an ELSS is not an option. There is an exclusion in the Life Safety Code where the high-rise condominium building has exits from all of the units that lead directly to an outdoor corridor. In that situation, the condominium will not be required to install fire sprinklers or implement an ELSS. 

Regardless of which option is chosen, the deadline to opt out is December 31, 2016 and implementation of either the retrofit or the ELSS must be completed by December 31, 2019. An association that is not in compliance with the requirements and has not voted to forgo retrofitting must initiate an application for a building permit for the required installation by December 31, 2016. The permit must demonstrate that the association will become complaint by December 31, 2019.
So why all the confusion? The confusion surrounding the retrofit stems from a 2010 revision to the statute, which removed the reference to high-rise buildings, causing many to interpret that to mean that the provisions in the statute now apply to all buildings. In their memo, FFSA and AFSA-FL stress that there is “no statutory fire sprinkler retrofit requirement for existing mid‐rise or low‐rise condominiums and therefore no need to vote to opt out."

If your members voted to opt out prior to 2010, you should speak with your attorney as the statutes were changed that year to allow associations to vote to opt out of sprinklers in the common areas as well inside the units.  A post-2010 may be required to opt out of retrofitting the common areas as well as the units.
Some low-rise and mid-rise condominiums are exercising caution and seeking written confirmation from their local fire officials to confirm whether or not the retrofit requirement applies to them. It is highly recommended that associations include this topic as an agenda item in their next Board meeting and consult with their attorney on these issues.
Confusion aside, it is clear that high-rise buildings are affected by the retrofit requirements. In order to opt out, high-rise condominiums must hold a vote with a majority of all voting interests in the association by December 31, 2016. Once the vote is completed, a certificate reflecting the vote must be recorded in the county’s public records, and notice of the results must be shared via mail with all members within 30 days of the vote. Lastly, the association needs to report the membership vote and the recording of the certificate to the Division of Florida Condominiums, Timeshares and Mobile Homes. The statute specifically states that the opt-out vote is not considered effective until a certificate is recorded in the public records of the county.
Associations would be wise to discuss the options with their Board of Directors and conduct their vote early so as to allow time to complete this multi-step process. Communities should also consult with their association attorney, a licensed contractor as well as local fire officials throughout the process. Should the vote not be conducted by the 2016 deadline, the association will be required to begin the permit application process to retrofit their fire sprinklers.
For more information about the fire sprinkler retrofit deadline, contact FirstService Residential.

Information on this very timely topic is continuing to unfold. As new developments become available, we will keep you updated.
Friday August 19, 2016