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The staff of the Tampa Bay Times

Fire associations to provide clarity to confusing alarm law sponsored by Sen. Wilton Simpson

24

September

After the Times reported widespread confusion about a new state law governing smoke alarms, the Florida Fire Chiefs Association and the Florida Fire Marshals and Inspectors Association have issued clarifications to their members and plan to address the law’s ambiguous language with state agencies.

In a joint memo sent out last week, both associations tried to outline the law’s original intent. They explained that it was intended to save contractors money by allowing them cheaper alternatives for smoke alarm installation, and was never meant to negatively impact fire safety efforts across the state.

But since the law went into effect in January, agencies across Tampa Bay have paused or halted their programs because they thought the new law banned the type of alarms they had in stock. Despite the effort to clear up confusion, some agencies still aren’t convinced they can resume their outreach with those alarms.

"The position of Tampa Fire Rescue remains the same,” said agency spokesman Jason Penny. “This letter does not have the force of law.”

Tampa’s cache of nearly 500 9-volt battery alarms are still collecting dust, Penny said, because the language of the law -- no matter its intent -- is unclear.

Because of liability fears, Penny said Tampa Fire Chief Tom Forward will wait for word from the Legislature or Attorney General Pam Bondi before again handing out the 9-volt alarms.

Last year, the Florida home-building industry sought the change to save contractors and homeowners money. The new statute, 553.883, states that family homes undergoing low-level construction or renovation can be outfitted with smoke alarms powered by 10-year lithium batteries instead of adding more expensive, hard-wired alarms. That much was already clear. It’s the next paragraph -- declaring any newly installed or replacement alarm must be powered by the 10-year battery -- that made fire officials wary.

Many fire prevention programs across the state provide the much cheaper, 9-volt battery alarms during distribution campaigns in poor or elderly neighborhoods. But the law’s contradictory language prompted not just Tampa Fire Rescue, but agencies in Pinellas, Pasco and Polk counties, to stop handing them out for fear of breaking the law.

After months of delay, some agencies partnered with the American Red Cross, traded in their 9-volts alarms for 10-year ones or applied for federal grants to fund the more expensive model, which can cost as much as $30 -- $25 more than one 9-volt battery alarm.

Tampa Fire Rescue stopped handing out alarms altogether for nearly six months before partnering with the Red Cross. News of the firefighters confusion about the law came to light after a 61-year-old Tampa woman and her three grandsons died in a housefire where there were no smoke detectors. Burglars bars on the doors and windows trapped them inside.

Julius Halas, director of the Division of State Fire Marshal, said in a statement to the Times that his office agrees with the law’s original intent.

“While the responsibility of its interpretation will fall to another agency, we do not interpret this new law as prohibiting fire safety professionals from placing 9-volt battery smoke alarms in existing 1-2 family homes not being renovated,” he said.

The Florida Building Commission, which operates within the Department of Business and Professional Regulation, has the authority to issue a declaratory statement officially clarifying the statute's intent. The commission said they have had no requests for a declaratory statement as of Thursday afternoon.

Sen. Wilton Simpson, R-Trilby, one of the bill’s original sponsors, said he still believes there should be no confusion about the law.

"The existing law as written offers a more affordable option for consumers remodeling their homes while still ensuring that saving lives is our first priority,” Simpson said in a statement. “It in no way prevents fire officials from distributing smoke detectors with 9 volt batteries. I will always work with public safety officials to ensure we do everything we possibly can to keep Florida's families safe. At this point in time, none of these groups have voiced concerns about this issue or requested any change; in fact, the State Fire Marshal, Fire Chiefs Association and others continue to tell me that the building code language is clear and there is no reason for their members to be confused."

Daniel Azzariti, Plant City Fire Rescue chief and vice president of the Florida Fire Chiefs Association, said his organization “would prefer a little cleaner language, mostly so we don’t have to keep answering the questions.”

Azzariti said the Fire Chiefs Association saw the law’s language before it was passed and found it clear, though he acknowledges they knew the background on its intent, while most fire departments may not have. He said the Fire Chiefs Association has discussed asking the Division of State Fire Marshal to work with the Florida Building Commission on an official clarification.

"The last thing we want to see is legislation passed that puts firefighters’ lives or citizens’ lives in danger," Azzariti said.

[Last modified: Thursday, September 24, 2015 4:44pm]

    

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