Fanning the flames: Naples condos fight fire codes while Marco complies

Joseph Cranney and Lisa Conley
Naples Daily News


At the high-rise condos that dot the Naples and Marco Island skylines, the threat of a deadly fire is real. Without proper fire prevention equipment, a blaze could consume any of the buildings, some 50 years old, that are symbols of the area's retirement lifestyle.

Big Marco Pass on Dec. 30, 2013, near Marco Island.

At least, that’s the threat that Naples Fire Marshal Bob Rogers sees, and its his job to ensure high-rises meet national fire safety standards, adopted in Florida law, requiring all condo towers taller than 75 feet to have sprinkler systems throughout the building.

The law allows condo associations to opt out of installing full sprinkler systems in their buildings. But they must install an alternative safety system, designed by a fire protection engineer, that provides other safety devices, such as additional smoke alarms or some sprinklers in common areas.

Last month, Gov. Rick Scott vetoed a bill that would have eased fire safety requirements for the state’s condos, including a provision that would have allowed condo associations to also opt out of the alternative engineered safety systems. The measure passed the Legislature with only one dissenting vote.

In vetoing the bill, Scott referred to a June 14 fire in London.

“While I am particularly sensitive to regulations that increase the cost of living, the recent London high-rise fire, which tragically took at least 79 lives, illustrates the importance of life safety protections,” Scott said.

More:London's Grenfell Tower was covered in insulation banned in other countries, official says

More:Grenfell Tower fire that killed 79 started in refrigerator

More:London fire: 79 people now confirmed dead or missing after Grenfell Tower high-rise blaze

The exact cost of retrofitting a condo with a full sprinkler system is unclear. But for a condo tower of 20 livable floors, with a half-dozen units per floor, even a conservative estimate of a few thousand dollars per unit would put the overall cost in the hundreds of thousands of dollars.

It's a cost that the bulk of the Marco Island community has already bore, according to Dave Batiato, Marco Island Fire-Rescue Department deputy chief.

There’s only one condo on the island that is currently not in compliance with the state’s fire codes, Batiato said. All of the other condos on the island retrofitted sprinkler systems shortly after the original law was passed in 2000.

“It was a big issue for the island when the law first came up because we had several buildings that were not in compliance,” Batiato said. “But now the veto only addresses one condo on the island,” which he didn’t know the name of at the time of the interview.

Batiato also said he and the rest of the department are happy with Scott’s veto, even though it doesn’t have much of an impact on Marco.

Marco Island Fire-Rescue responding to a call of smoke emanating from a condo at 1011 Swallow Avenue. According to a press release, upon arrival the first unit advised of smoke coming from a first floor unit of a five story, approximately 50 unit condominium.

Naples, however, is a different story: there are about a dozen Naples condo towers without full sprinkler systems, according to the fire department.

Since Rogers took over as fire marshal in 2014, none of the condo associations have agreed to retrofit their buildings with full systems. These are old buildings, mostly built in the 1960s, '70s and '80s, near Doctors Pass. The law required newer condo towers along Gulfshore Boulevard to have full sprinkler systems installed when they were built.

Eight of the condo groups have submitted their alternative engineering fire safety plans to the fire department.

The department already has approved four of those plans and is reviewing three others, Rogers said, without discussing details of which associations are further along than others.

One condo building, Gulfside, has completed its improvements, approved by the fire department. The improvements include a single sprinkler head in each living unit, near the front door.

“That is one of the requirements that we feel strongly about,” Rogers said. “If there’s a fire in that unit, that head is strong enough to keep it from going to the door.”

Another condo association, The Embassy Club, doesn’t have any sprinklers in its building and hasn’t submitted a fire safety plan to the city. 

The Embassy Club residents, who in 2013 voted to opt out of installing a full sprinkler system in their building, were hoping state legislation easing code requirements would pass, said Therese Wagner, the group's property manager.

“We don’t have an option now, so we’ll have to do something,” Wagner said.