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Navigating the Florida Fire Prevention Code – Is Your Condominium Required to Implement an Engineered Life Safety System?

Retrofit, high-rise building, lowest threshold, compartmentation, “opt-out” . . . what do these words have in common?

They all relate to the Florida Fire Prevention Code (the “Code”) and served to confuse many condominium association property managers, board members and even legal counsel when they sought to determine how to apply the requirements of the Code to their condominium building. The Code provides that “high-rise” condominium buildings shall be protected by an approved, supervised automatic sprinkler system by December 31, 2019. Confusion set in when the Florida Condominium Act was amended to permit condominiums to “opt-out” of the requirement to retro-fit the condominium building with a complete automatic sprinkler system by a vote of the membership by December 31, 2016. The Condominium Act does not explicitly state that the other requirements of the Code still apply if a condominium association “opts-out” of retrofitting for a complete sprinkler system. Herein lies the confusion. In fact, the Code still applies even if a condominium association “opted-out” and provides that a “high-rise” condominium must implement an alternative approved engineered life safety system (an “ELSS”). Now that we have dropped the ball in Times Square for 2019, it is time to address the December 31, 2019 deadline of the Code so condominium associations don’t “drop the ball” complying with the Code.

Is your building a “High-Rise”?
Keep in mind, the Code requirement to protect the building with a complete automatic sprinkler or an ELSS only applies to a “high-rise” building. If your condominium building’s lowest occupiable floor can be reached by a 75 foot ladder from the lowest level of fire department vehicle access, then you are not a high-rise building. Also, an automatic sprinkler system is not required where every unit has exterior exit access as specified in the Section 7.5.3 of the Code. Both exceptions are based upon specifications that may only be determined by a professional engineer in fire and safety or the fire department official with jurisdiction over your building. For example, Section 7.5.3 of the Code provides specific details as to the exterior exits and distances between dead end hallways and exits, so it is recommended condominium associations consult a registered professional engineer or a fire department official to confirm the building meets that exterior exit exception. Similarly, some condominium associations may have inaccurately assumed the condominium building was not considered a “high-rise” based upon a miscalculation of the lowest level of fire department access. If there is any question, your association should contact the fire department official with jurisdiction to confirm the building is not considered a “high-rise”.

Did your association “opt-out”?
If your condominium building is a “high-rise” and does not have exterior balconies for every unit to allow exterior exit access, then your association had the opportunity to “opt-out” of the automatic sprinkler requirement pursuant to Section 718.112(2)(l) of the Condominium Act by December 31, 2016. You should confirm with legal counsel whether your association satisfied the opt-out requirements of the Condominium Act. Even if your association successfully “opted-out”, the Code still requires the condominium building to develop an “ELSS” by a registered professional engineer and be approved by the fire department official having jurisdiction. Simply put, if an association “opted-out” to forego retrofitting, then it by default selected to implement an “ELSS” by December 31, 2019. So your association may have simply “bought” some more time but unless the deadline is extended by the Florida Legislature time is running out to implement an ELSS in you building.

What is an “ELSS”?
An ELSS is a system of fire and life safety components which is designed by a registered professional engineer and is approved by the fire department official having jurisdiction. The ELSS should provide a level of protection equal to or better than a full automatic sprinkler system. The Code requires an ELSS to include any or all of the following components: (1) partial automatic sprinkler protection; (2) smoke detection systems; (3) smoke control systems; (4) compartmentation; or (5) other approved systems. An ELSS will need to be designed by an engineer and may require a combination of fire and life safety components depending on the individual building and specific county or municipal fire codes. For example, partial automatic fire sprinklers in the common areas and at the front door of each unit, smoke detectors and a system of compartmentation, like fire walls, may be required. If your association has not started the process to obtain approval of an ELSS by the fire department official having jurisdiction, it should contact a registered professional engineer as soon as possible to start the process.

The important take away points:
For condominium associations that did not vote to “opt-out” to forego retrofitting as required by the Condominium Act prior to December 31, 2016, the association must install a complete automatic sprinkler system by December 31, 2019.
If your association effectively “opted-out” to retrofit your building with a complete automatic sprinkler system, then make sure you have an approved alternative ELSS installed by December 31, 2019. This year will come and go quickly, so make sure your association doesn’t “drop the ball” by complying with the Code by December 31, 2019.

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