Condo Inspections Governments Focus on Safety

On the roof of a high-rise condominium building, a wall of concrete panels surrounded a large cooling tower, supported by structural-steel I-beams. After decades in south Florida’s corrosive climate, the steel beams had rusted and were almost ready to snap. That would have allowed the concrete panels to collapse, sending the whole assembly crashing through the condo's roof.
“The steel came from the factory with just a primer coat, and was never painted,” recounts John Micali, CRI, president of Allied Building Inspection Services in Miami. “Painting the beams a couple of times over 40 years would have cost about $2,000. Instead, it cost $500,000 to bring in a gigantic crane to lift the panels and steel off [of the roof] and rebuild the whole thing.”

Out of Sight, Out of Mind

Micali cites this debacle as a classic example of what happens when condos, cooperatives, and HOAs fail to inspect and maintain their physical assets. Although inspectors from multiple government agencies visited the building above repeatedly over the years, nobody noticed the problem until it recently caught the eye of an engineer.
The condo hired the engineer to inspect the building for 40-year recertification of its structural and electrical systems. In Miami-Dade County, 40-year recertification went into effect in 1975. Broward County put a similar program into effect in 2006. Both counties also require recertification at the 50-year mark and every 10 years thereafter. This program doesn’t require buildings 40 years old to comply with the latest codes, but they must be functional and safe. Engineers who do such work recommend recertification in Palm Beach County, too, though it’s not required.
Miami-Dade County requires recertification for buildings with at least 2,000 square feet and three or more units. Broward’s minimum requirement is 3,500 square feet. Thus, a garden-type structure with three apartments of 1,000 square feet each would require recertification in Miami-Dade, but not in Broward.
“A homeowner association’s clubhouse might require recertification if it’s big enough,” Micali says. Although the stated minimum is 2,000 square feet and 10 workers, he says Miami-Dade County mandated recertification for a 1,950-square-foot clubhouse with 10 employees. In 2015, he says, 3,000 buildings Miami-Dade County and 1,200 in Broward County were subject to 40-year recertification.

Legal Requirements

The 40-year recertification is among an array of governmental inspections to which common-interest communities are potentially subject. The Florida Fire Prevention Code requires all owners or occupants of a structure to comply with its provisions, but according to Sarah Maman, P.E., a fire protection engineer at Fire, Life Safety & Security Institute Inc., a consulting engineering firm in Deerfield Beach, “The likelihood of enforcing this in a single-family home or duplex is pretty remote, because no government authority inspects them. In larger buildings, as the fire protection and life safety systems become more complicated, the more inspection and testing is required, and the more likely fire departments will inspect these buildings to ensure compliance.”
As for footing the bill for these inspections, “The owners pay for it,” Maman continues. “Everything dealing with inspections is borne by the owners, whether as a special assessment or as part of their maintenance fee. The legislation is there, and the responsibility lies with the owners and occupants.”
Micali advises his condo-association clients to begin the 40-year recertification process at least a year before the deadline. Once the jurisdiction having authority sends a notification letter, the association has 90 days to hire a consultant, obtain the report, and submit it. “If repairs are required, you have 60 days to request a permit. They tell you the repairs must be completed in 60 days, but they will grant extensions when you have work going on,” he says.
“With so many owners, a large association facing major repairs requires voting. Concrete decay issues require engineering and a lengthy permitting process. Then the work itself takes time. A massive job with concrete restoration may take a year. You want to get ahead of that so you’re not in default before you even start.”
Fire inspectors appear when they want to. “Some fire departments may pre-call and schedule the inspection, but some prefer to show up unexpectedly,” says Janet A. Washburn, a fire prevention officer and senior plans examiner for Hollywood Fire Rescue and Beach Safety. “If a building has not seen the fire department for over a year, the board or property manager could contact the local fire marshal’s office to schedule an annual inspection.”

Life-Safety Equipment

Washburn says life-safety equipment in a high-rise condo may include a generator, fire pump, fire sprinkler system, fire alarm system, smoke control or smoke evacuation system, fire extinguishers, and standpipes. (A standpipe is a red 4-inch or 6-inch vertical pipe with a water supply extending up from the ground floor through each stairwell. If a fire occurs, the firemen attach hoses to connectors on the standpipe.)
Residents should check their apartments’ smoke alarms twice a year to make sure the batteries are viable, Washburn advises. “Most smoke alarms in residential units aren’t tied into the building’s fire alarm system,” she notes, so if a smoke alarm sounds, the residents should pull the lever on the nearest fire alarm box in the corridor on their way out of the building.
Maman says the code until recently required only one hard-wired single-station smoke alarm outside the bedrooms in an apartment to give its occupants an early warning of a fire. Now the code also requires a battery-operated smoke alarm inside each bedroom of every apartment in Florida—“and that requirement is retroactive,” she says.

Routine Maintenance

A condominium’s maintenance staff should keep non-related storage out of electrical and mechanical rooms, and check exits and stairwells routinely to ensure that they are free of debris or storage, aren’t locked, and have self-closing doors. “Such doors need maintenance every few years due to corrosion if the condominium building is located on the beach,” Washburn notes. “Exit signs and emergency lights also should be checked routinely.”
In buildings with a common laundry room, the staff should clean the dryer vents daily so a lint build-up won’t cause a fire.
Condominiums also must enforce no-parking areas to prevent cars from blocking access for arriving fire trucks and access to hydrants and hose connections, Washburn says.
A trash chute can act as a vertical wind tunnel, carrying a fire up into a building. Preventive measures include trash chute doors that close tightly so smoke can’t enter the corridors, fire sprinklers in the chute (in buildings with sprinklers), and the fusible link on the ground floor in the trash chute room, designed to slam a lid or door over the trash bin if a fire occurs, containing the fire to the bin. “If the link is corroded or gummed up with debris, it may fail to operate and the door won’t shut,” Washburn warns.

Sprinkler Options

The 2001 edition of the Florida Fire Prevention Code raised what Maman calls “the king of all issues”—a requirement that sprinklers be installed throughout all high-rise apartment buildings in the state.
“Some jurisdictions were gung-ho and started to enforce it,” she says. “Then the word got out that installing sprinklers would require updating other systems, including pumps and generators. The cost became horrendous. The condo associations went to Tallahassee [to protest] and the legislators added a provision to the condo statute that an association could vote by a simple majority to opt out of requiring sprinkler protection within the building.”
Associations that opt out must vote by December 31, 2016, then register the results with the Florida Department of Business and Professional Regulation and notify the local fire department. Those that don’t opt out must get a contractor, develop plans, and submit them to the local fire department for a permit by December 31, 2016. Then they have to complete the project by December 31, 2019.
“Everybody thinks they’re going to opt out, but that’s not the whole story. You can’t be forced to sprinkler any part of the buildings, but if you don’t, you need an engineered life-safety system, which can only be done by an engineer,” Maman says. She compares it to a table with four legs—compartmentation, means of egress, fire detection alarm, and fire suppression (which includes sprinklers and standpipes). “If you cut off one leg, will that table still stand? Yes, just support the other three sides.”
Opting out of sprinklers may save money initially, but has long-term costs and is a bad idea, Washburn counsels. “A common fallacy I hear from people is that ‘we’ve never had a fire here before,’’’ she says. “I cringe when I hear that, as one never knows what their neighbor is doing. No one knows when they will have a fire. Fire sprinklers will save lives and avoid costly building repairs due to the devastating effect from a fire.”
Washburn says sprinklers control more than 90 percent of fires. Each sprinkler head discharges about 25 gallons of water a minute, compared with the hundreds or thousands of gallons a minute that would pass through firefighters’ hoses. “The heat from the fire activates a sensor in the fire sprinkler device, discharging an amount of water that will extinguish the fire or at least contain it until the fire department responds,” she says. “The entire fire sprinkler system does not operate, as Hollywood movies imply.
“Contrary to popular belief, the fire sprinkler systems are quite cost-efficient. Insurance reductions are given if the property is protected, due to much less risk involved in insuring the property. Thus, In the long run, the system will pay for itself.”
Furthermore, Washburn says, condos in buildings that aren’t fully sprinkler-equipped will become increasingly hard to sell. “I’ve had a half-dozen persons call me since January 2015 to ask if certain high-rises had a fire sprinkler system, because they were interested in purchasing a unit. When I told them no, the deal fell through,” she reports.

Other Inspections

Although building and fire departments have the broadest responsibilities for safety in common-interest communities, many other jurisdictions also may be involved.
“If you own a condo unit and rent it to a Section 8 (low-income housing) tenant, the local housing authority will inspect yearly to ensure that it meets minimal housing standards,” Micali says. “They look for peeling paint, plumbing leaks, screens, doors that work, and functioning appliances.”
Many condos also have relationships with the Florida Division of Hotels and Restaurants (DHR). The DHR requires the owner of a building with balconies to have them inspected by an architect or engineer every three years.
Elevators and escalators require annual inspections. Under contract with the DHR, Broward and Miami-Dade counties and the cities of Miami and Miami Beach oversee certified contractors who perform these inspections.
Condos with food-and-beverage operations and/or convenience stores that sell food may be subject to regulation and inspection by the DHR, the county health department, and the Florida Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services.
Permitting and inspection of public swimming pools (including those in common-interest communities) is the responsibility of the county health department’s Environmental Health Section.
Mosquito control is a county responsibility. Inspectors may visit a common-interest community to find sources of mosquito annoyance, such as ponds and water-filled containers.
Playgrounds, surprisingly, have no specific governmental champion—but they can be inspected for safety by a Certified Playground Safety Inspector. The certifying organization, the National Recreation and Park Association (NRPA), says such inspections can help protect children from injury due to playground hazards, and protect the playground’s owner from safety-related liability claims.    
George Leposky is a freelance writer and is a frequent contributor to The South Florida Cooperator.

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