Fire Chief Pushed Sprinklers for Office Buildings; Commission Opts for Softer State Standard

Safety versus unexpected expenses for businesses was at the heart of a controversy for city commissioners today when they adopted changes to Lakeland’s fire code.

The changes were triggered by updates to the Florida Fire Protection Code. The state fire code is updated every three years; cities must adopt the code as minimal fire-safety standards, but they may add stricter standards.

Until today, the city of Lakeland had included a stricter provision than the state by requiring automatic sprinklers in buildings over 12,000 square feet that are used solely as offices.

Under state code, sprinklers are required in buildings over 12,000 square feet for new construction and for existing buildings when there is an addition, renovation or change in use. However, state code exempts buildings used for one- or two-family homes and does not mention buildings used strictly as offices, Lakeland Fire Chief Douglas Riley told commissioners.

Riley said he does not know why the state code fails to mention office uses.

In a 6-1 vote today commissioners decided to drop the city’s requirement for sprinklers in buildings used solely as offices.

Then in a separate vote, commissioners unanimously adopted the Florida Fire Protection Code with some minor changes.

View the updated fire code and a summary of local changes. They are also available at the end of this article.

In voting to drop the stricter provision mandating sprinklers in office buildings, commissions, led by Commissioner Stephanie Madden, cited the unexpected costs and delays business owners and developers may face if they do not realize Lakeland deviates from the state code.

Commissioner Don Selvage, the holdout favoring keeping the stricter provision, said, ”I don’t believe the Fire Department would insert this unless there is a reason.”

Selvage asked Lakeland Fire Chief Doug Riley if he favored going to the laxer state standard and Riley responded, “As chief, I am always going to favor sprinklers.”

Mayor Bill Mutz commented it was the chief’s job to always put safety first but there were other concerns for commissioners to also consider.

Before the vote, Madden said that over the years she has served on the City Commission she has heard from constituents that having the stricter provision translates to lost time on construction projects and extra costs that may not have been figured into retrofitting a building.

And, Madden said, “We have a lot of folks building now. We cannot keep up with our permits and inspections.”

Madden said she hoped that residents understand “we want our buildings to be safe but we don’t want to be over stringent. We want to show our developers and builders that we are listening to the things they have found to be difficult.”

The state may find Lakeland was right all along and the requiring sprinklers in offices will eventually be included in the standards, she said.

Riley

Riley had said at Friday’s commission agenda study session that while “obviously sprinklers save lives” the department was willing to relax its standards to conform with state code if the city commissioners directed it to do so.

“Ninety-nine percent of the time if there is a fire in a building with sprinklers, that fire is contained or controlled by one sprinkler head rather than the fire having time to spread or get out out of control,” Riley said. “If people are in the building, it gives them time to evacuate. And when we respond, we are more likely dealing with a small, if any, fire and a small cleanup situation rather than dealing a large fire,” he said

During the discussion Friday, Madden had reminded fellow commissioners about a woman who had planned to lease a building for medical offices, had done due diligence in checking into costs, getting a budget together and consulting with people familiar with the state fire code before she signed a lease agreement. Then, she found when she went to pull a permit that Lakeland would require a sprinkler system that was not required by state code.

“The landlord did not want to pay for it; it was not needed prior to this lease.” Madden said. “The lessee did not consider a cost of $70,000, or whatever the exact cost was, and this was quite a surprise. It could put a person out of business.”

And on Friday, Madden spoke about the commission’s desire to revitalize downtown and encourage businesses to move into older buildings, most of which do not have sprinklers.

“We have contractors used to the state fire code tell them you are good; then we surprise the folks with a big price tag for a sprinkler system,” Madden said. “While there is merit to being safe and saving lives, we also need to consider we are in a high-growth period, post-COVID.”

Commissioner Phillip Walker exhibited mixed feelings about the sprinkler issue, saying on Friday, “We are talking about lives being saved versus lives that may not be saved.” But after the discussion on Monday, Walker voted with the majority to lessen the standard.

Monday’s meeting may have been Selvage’s last as an interim commissioner. Elections are being held Tuesday to select a new city commissioner for the Southeast District. If one of the four candidates gets a majority, he will be sworn into office in time for the next commission meeting on April 19. If no candidate gets a majority on Tuesday, a runoff election will be held May 4 between the two candidates with the highest vote tallies, and Selvage will attend two more meetings as a commissioner.

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