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  1. News

Florida's firefighters left in a state of confusion by new fire alarm law

Bob Jamieson of the Hillsborough County Fire Rescue carries a bucket of home smoke detectors to install in residents homes in the Woodland Terrace neighborhood of Tampa on Wednesday. The American Red Cross partnered with the Tampa Fire Rescue and Hillsborough County Fire Rescue to install free smoke detectors and educate residents on fire prevention. [OCTAVIO JONES | Times]

Lawmakers say they never intended for an obscure change in the state building code this year to outlaw installation of 9-volt battery smoke detectors by fire departments across Florida.

But that's how fire officials, particularly in the Tampa Bay area, interpreted the law's contradictory language.

"This really was just bad legislation," said Tampa Fire Rescue Chief Tom Forward. "No one will absolutely put fingerprints on it, and that's the part that's got me obviously irate."

The law has come under scrutiny in the wake of a Sept. 1 fire that killed a woman and her three grandchildren in a Tampa home without alarms.

Tampa Fire Rescue then revealed it had 450 9-volt smoke detectors stacked in a room, collecting dust. They stopped handing them out to the public after the new law took effect Jan. 1.

The statutory language, Forward said, had derailed a mainstay of their fire safety program.

Here's why: Last year, the Florida home-building industry sought to change the law to save contractors money. The new statute, 553.883, states that family homes undergoing low-level construction or renovation can install required smoke alarms powered by 10-year lithium batteries instead of adding more expensive, hard-wired alarms.

That's not what's confusing.

It's the next paragraph — declaring that those longer-life alarms "must" be installed — that has left state officials at a loss and fire departments frustrated.

That's because fire officials believe the law barred them from handing out cheaper 9-volt-powered fire alarms. Those inexpensive devices are one of their main tools in improving the fire safety of the most vulnerable: the poor and elderly.

Authors of the bill, however, say it was meant to apply to contractors — not firefighters. The law's language, however, doesn't specify whom it applies to.

And the Division of State Fire Marshal's office, the firefighting regulatory authority in the state, said it was never consulted.

The result: mass confusion.

"How in the world did this get past all of us Florida fire chiefs?" Forward said.

Sen. Wilton Simpson, R-Trilby, a Pasco County contractor who sponsored the Senate version of the bill, said there should be no confusion.

"The intent of the law is clear. There is no ambiguity … " he wrote in an email. "This has nothing to do with a local fire official's ability to hand out 9-volt battery smoke detectors and anyone who says different is deliberately misleading the public and making a sad attempt at blaming someone else for their own ignorance."

But when Forward and other top fire officials in Hillsborough, Pasco, Pinellas and Polk counties read the new law, they concluded that it did apply to them.

And when they sought clarity from the state, they said they were stymied at every turn.

St. Petersburg Fire Rescue Marshal Mike Domante said the financial burden of having to buy the new lithium alarms for up to $30 each compared to the old 9-volt alarms at $5 apiece pushed him to confer with legislators and the Florida Building Commission, a division of the Florida Department of Business and Professional Regulation, that interprets the building code.

"I didn't really receive a definitive answer," Domante said.

When the Tampa Bay Times asked for similar clarification, commission officials were unwilling to give it. Instead, they emailed copies of the statute and insisted the law was clear.

However, the commission's responses addressed only the building industry — not firefighters.

Lobbyist Kari Hebrank, who represents the Florida Home Builders Association, said she helped craft the law to save contractors and homeowners money.

"There weren't any objections or problems raised with the language," she said. "We would have definitely addressed it had it been brought to our attention."

However, a State Fire Marshal's official told the Times they have fielded "many calls" from confused fire departments about the law.

Rep. Larry Ahern, R-Seminole, who co-sponsored a House version of the bill, said he thought the law would only encourage the use of the longer-lasting — and safer — fire alarms.

"I hate to see that it's being misinterpreted," Ahern said, "and I hope that they will get some clarification."

Different fire departments ended up making different choices. That's why Tampa Fire Rescue's 9-volt alarms are still in storage. It plans to buy lithium alarms next year.

Pasco County Fire Rescue Marshal Donald Campbell did the opposite: He instructed his department to exhaust its supply of 9-volt alarms — however, he still believes his agency must buy the more expensive alarms. It applied for a federal grant to buy 5,000 lithium alarms.

After the deadly Sept. 1 fire, Tampa Fire Rescue, Hillsborough County Fire Rescue and the Red Cross went around the east Tampa neighborhood and handed out smoke detectors — lithium ones, not 9-volt ones.

In Pinellas County, fire officials got so fed up with the confusion that they sought help from the Pinellas County Construction Licensing Board, which has local interpretive power over the building code. That board allowed them to keep handing out 9-volt alarms.

Said the board's executive director, Rodney Fischer: "It's one of those cases of a new code getting in the way of what's right."

Times staff writer Michael Auslen and researcher John Martin contributed to this report. Contact Katie Mettler at kmettler@tampabay.com or (813) 226-3446. Follow @kemettler.

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