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Posh Tampa dining club + lunchtime fire drill + city fine = indignation

TAMPA — The annual fire drill at One Tampa City Center went smoothly last month until city fire inspector Kenneth Nelson reached the 38th floor, home to the posh University Club.

There, club members and guests were still having lunch in dark-paneled dining rooms with sweeping views of downtown. A group from Tampa General Hospital was holding a meeting. In the kitchen, chefs cooked on.

Some had evacuated. Others had not, despite the alarm and the orders to get out, avoid the elevators and head for the stairs for what could be a long hike to the ground floor.

"They were the only floor that didn't evacuate," Tampa Fire Marshal Russell Spicola said Monday. "That's a serious complaint."

Now the non-evacuation has resulted in a $200 city fine for the club and a starchy complaint to City Hall.

"Apparently, the U Club was targeted during this year's drill," Tampa lawyer Marsha Rydberg, a club past president and board member, wrote in a Dec. 9 letter.

Perhaps that's because "the evacuation requirements from the U Club render the drill more than daunting," she added. "It is outright hazardous!"

The club, in what's known as the Verizon Building, could make employees evacuate, and some did, she said. Members are another matter.

"The Club cannot force guests to descend 38 flights of stairs, and it cannot incur the potential liability for injury to its members and guests who may not be able to sustain the rigors of a 38-floor descent for a drill," she wrote.

Rydberg said the club was appealing the fine, and she described a charged exchange between Nelson and Ron Hytoff, Tampa General Hospital's chief executive officer.

Without naming him, Rydberg said Nelson acted "in an extremely unprofessional manner," addressing Hytoff as if he were the club's manager.

"He accosted and badgered the CEO about evacuating, but the CEO refused to go, probably because he was concerned about the physical constraints evacuation would impose on his meeting participants," Rydberg added.

No, Spicola said, "that didn't happen."

"Mr. Nelson did not badger anybody, and he did not accost anybody," Spicola said. "Was he frustrated? Yes, he was. You would be frustrated, too, when you've got this major drill going on that we take very seriously that (others) did not."

Moreover, Spicola said he spoke to Hytoff, and Hytoff told him that the inspector did not act the way Rydberg claimed. Hytoff, through a hospital spokesman, declined to comment Monday.

So were people really expected to hike all those flights down to the first floor?

Not necessarily, Spicola said.

If they were able, occupants were expected to leave the building and people did, even from the 37th floor, he said. But those who weren't able could have taken refuge in the stairwells, where the air is pressurized to keep smoke and fire out.

By the time the idea of waiting in the stairwells came up at the University Club, it was too late, Rydberg said in her letter.

"During the badgering, someone suggested evacuees only needed to congregate in the stairwell; they did not have to walk down the 38 flights," she wrote. "By the time this 'option' was suggested, the meeting participants had reacted negatively to the situation and to the conduct of the Fire Department employee, and they were unwilling to comply with his demands."

If people could seek shelter in the stairwells during the evacuation, that should have been publicized, Rydberg said.

It was, Spicola said.

Building managers scheduled the time and day of the drill, 2 p.m. Nov. 15. They did not tell tenants when the drill would be, but did invite every suite to send a representative to an annual meeting of the skyscraper's safety wardens on Oct. 26.

"We will be discussing the annual building fire drill at this meeting, handling out updated emergency procedures, discussing the importance of your role as a safety warden and the importance of participating in the fire drills," the invitation said.

A slide presentation for the meeting included information on how safety wardens could assist physically impaired occupants to the stairwells.

"According to what I was told," Spicola said, the University Club was the only tenant "that did not attend."

Richard Danielson can be reached at (813) 226-3403 or Danielson@sptimes.com.

Posh Tampa dining club + lunchtime fire drill + city fine = indignation 12/20/10 [Last modified: Monday, December 20, 2010 10:18pm]

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