GULFPORT — Plans to update the fire alarm system at the Town Shores over-55 condominiums has drawn the ire of residents.
The new system, which comes with a $700,000 price tag, or $700 per unit just for installation, has left many residents confused and angry.
To make matters worse, maintenance fees will increase.
"This is just another 700 bucks that I have to cover," said resident Rick Gilbert. "It is an archaic system the day it goes in."
Many residents of Town Shores think the community is relatively safe from fire, and that the advantages of the new system are not commensurate with its cost.
Adding the new fire system stemmed from a series of meetings between Town Shores management and the city of Gulfport, which wants to bring buildings into compliance with the 2007 Florida Fire Prevention Code that went into effect in December 2008.
Some residents have complained that the building is safe, adding that fires have caused no death or significant property damage in Town Shores in its 40-year history.
"This is exactly what we are trying to prevent," said Gulfport City Manager James O'Reilley.
Currently, each Town Shores unit has a battery-operated smoke detector, and there is a pull box system with a fire alarm buzzer on each floor. The front entrance of each unit leads to an open walkway, so no unit is enclosed. The buildings are composed of thick concrete. Many think this is enough.
According to Critical System Solutions, the company responsible for installing the changes, the upgraded system will include a plug-in sounder that connects to the main fire alarm system in the building.
"If the building fire alarm system goes into general alarm condition, the plug-in sounders that will be installed inside the units will produce roughly 90 decibels of sound, thereby alerting the residents of a fire emergency condition in their building," explained John Wolfley, a representative of CSS.
"The building's new fire alarm system can be activated by either pulling a manual pull station or automatically by heat and/or smoke detectors that will be installed in all (common areas)."
Under the new plan, when the fire alarm system is activated it will alert a building's central monitoring station, which will then call the Gulfport Fire Department. An enunciator in the ground floor lobby of each building will tell firefighters the general location of the fire.
Hard-wired smoke detectors will replace the battery-operated smoke ones, so that if the detector goes off it will alert the building's control panel.
According to Gulfport fire Chief James Marenkovic, building elevators will be upgraded as well.
"(These improvements) save time in locating where the fire problem exits, and it brings the elevator to the first floor for the firefighters," Marenkovic explained.
Marenkovic said the elevator and fire alarm system need to be brought up to code by July of 2012.
Town Shores consists of 18 buildings and 1,300 units. Each building is responsible for contracting with a company to make the necessary changes to its system as mandated by Florida and Gulfport. Fifteen buildings have signed with CSS, two are appealing to the city to forgo these required changes and one is already in compliance.
"The city is working on an individual basis with the buildings that have elected not to join in the (CSS) contract. I personally have met with representatives of two of the buildings and have had correspondence with the third to discuss facilitating compliance," O'Reilly explained.
A major complaint among many residents, who do not wish to be named for fear of retaliation, is that the process was opaque, and the total cost of the project was not told to them until this past March.
Gregg Fata, the Town Shores property manager, disagreed with this assessment. "In our October 2010 meeting, we estimated the cost to do the minimum as being allowed by the fire chief to cost approximately $1 million for the initial 16 associations," he said. Whether the information was discussed, or passed along to residents, is open for debate.
Another complaint is that Fata pressured residents to sign as part of a group contract with CSS, or face draconian fines by the city.
In an e-mail to a Town Shores resident, Fata wrote, "I met with the city manager, Council members, the Fire Chief this morning and if the associations don't sign the group contract on (April) 26th, they have till the 18th of May to get their own contract signed or they will be fined the $100 to $500 per day."
Both Marenkovic and O'Reilly deny that this was ever discussed.
"The city has not established, nor have I stated, any such deadline or broached the point of discussing or issuing any type of citation or fine," O'Reilly said.
Fata said his misstatement stemmed from miscommunication between him and city officials.
The new fees, which Fata says will be spaced out over two years, come at a time when many units are in foreclosure and many snowbirds have not returned to their apartments because it is too much of a burden.
Residents who still frequent Town Shores are reeling from rising gas and food prices, as well as the general cost of living.
"Is it a hardship?" asked six-year resident Gint Valaitis. "Sure, it is a hardship. Can we manage it? One way or another, we will manage it. But when we moved in, our maintenance fee was $174 a month. Today, it is $335."
More important, Valaitis said, he and those who oppose the regulation have no power.
"We feel like this is being shoved down our throats."