Days after the deadly high-rise fire in London, Gov. Rick Scott wisely put safety before profit by vetoing legislation that would have delayed requirements for installing fire sprinklers in older condominiums across Florida. The governor drew the connection between the horrible fire and the lack of regulation in another country — and a little-noticed bill overwhelmingly approved by the Legislature. He performed a public service by favoring public safety over the typical Tallahassee impulse of repealing or delaying regulations to save a few bucks.
Condos built since 1994 that are three stories tall or higher are required to have sprinklers now. Older condos are required to at least have "engineered life safety systems'' — a combination of sprinklers, smoke alarms or other equipment that detect or respond to a blaze. The legislation, HB 653, would have once again delayed the requirements for the older condos to retrofit their buildings with sprinklers from 2019 to 2022.
Supporters said retrofitting an older condo building could cost millions of dollars, and they emphasized the legislation would affect only residential towers, not hotels or other buildings generally open to the public. The state's fire chiefs and inspectors opposed the bill, noting that the Legislature had already weakened the law before — in 2003 and 2010, loosening the rules for condos to comply and twice extending the deadline. Still, lawmakers passed HB 653 almost unanimously (Sen. Greg Steube, R-Sarasota, lodged the sole opposing vote).
But only weeks after the bill sailed through the Legislature in May, the fire swept through the Grenfell Tower public housing project in London, killing at least 80 people. The building lacked fire alarms, sprinklers and a fire escape, and authorities blamed flammable materials used in the apartment siding for spreading the blaze. The tragedy exposed lax building codes and practices embraced in Britain by Labor and Conservative governments, which are outlawed here. Scott pointed to that disaster in vetoing the House bill last week:
"Safety issues are critically important, as they can be the difference between life and death," Scott wrote in his veto message. "Fire sprinklers and (other) safety systems are particularly effective in improving the safety of occupants in high-rise buildings. While I am particularly sensitive to regulations that increase the cost of living, the recent London high-rise fire, which tragically took at least (80) lives, illustrates the importance of life safety protections."
Florida lawmakers too often put public safety and the state's natural resources at risk to cut regulations and appear business-friendly. The state's business regulatory arm estimated that retrofitting a condo would cost from $600 to $8,600 per unit. That pales in comparison to the value of a human life, and the governor got the balance right.