Safety First, Safety Always: New Fire Inspection Ordinance

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    Reality struck with a vengeance on May 24, 2015.

    “That is the day Fort Myers Beach suffered its first life lost to fire in 35 years,” says Division Chief Fire Marshal Ron Martin, recalling the blaze that killed a woman while injuring two others in a two-family house. “The Fort Myers Beach Fire Control District realized then we needed a new level of security and scrutiny to protect the lives and property of our citizens.”

    The root of the tragedy began almost a decade earlier. “As on so many fronts, The Great Recession left its impact, with repercussions through today,” explains Fire Marshal Martin. “While things are better, it is not a boom, so we live in a ‘Sharing Economy’ – jobs and benefits and rides and an assortment of things. One of those is the opportunity to vacation in the paradise that is Fort Myers Beach, but most cannot afford a place of their own so they share one through renting. Many homeowners are absentee landlords who visit once or twice a year and rent their house out the remainder of the time, meaning we have a lot of part-time residents.”

    During the downturn, the State of Florida imposed budget cuts, including to the Department of Professional Regulation, Division of Hotels & Restaurants that formerly inspected all units to remain in compliance with safety codes for smoke detectors and related items. It eliminated inspections for rentals and vacation homes of two units or less. “This created a big gap, and started the long road down to authority at the local level to ensure the safety of this enormous demographic,” Martin explains. “The fire fatality re-enforced that the Fort Myers Beach Fire Control District needed to fill this void.”

    The solution is the new Fire Ordinance enacted on March 1, 2016, requiring registration and periodic fire inspections of one and two family homes excluded by the State mandated inspections. Fire Marshal Martin states that “we have an older building stock, as was sadly the case in the fatal fire, so it is important we give these vacation homes and long-term rentals a critical look. Our goal as an organization is to go at least another 35 years without such a devastating loss. When people visit our beautiful community, we want them to have the same secure feeling when they put their head on the pillow at night as they would at home or in one of our first-class hotels.”

    Response to date is outstanding, causing the Fire Marshal to comment with a chuckle that “it is unusual for something so new to be so positive! Almost immediately, property owners registered and scheduled inspections. The most surprising discovery is also the most pleasant – just about every owner already employs appropriate safety features so we are not discovering many issues at all. What we do find are mostly minor and taken care of on the spot or within a few days.”

    Out-of-state landlords find this service especially valuable. “When you are a thousand miles away, you need to rely on someone local to ensure your place is OK, and these people like that the Fire Control District is monitoring their property because they trust us,” said Fire Marshal Martin. “We follow up not only with the report, but photographs to illustrate the situation.” They email this to the property owner and rental agent, with 45 days to comply with minor problems, but imminent threats require immediate attention.

    You Do; You Don’t

    Your property falls under the new ordinance if you occupy, own and reside in transient, vacation, short-term or timeshare rentals, along with non-owner-occupied two-family homes. Transient rentals are single and two-family properties rented to guests more than three times in a calendar year, for less than 30 days or one calendar month, including those advertised as vacation, resort, rental, home and timeshares.

    If you meet these criteria, register with the FMB Fire Control District with the full legal name of the property owner and local contact, along with telephone number, mailing address, and email. You must respond within 72 hours of a District request, and be available for inspection within 30 days. It is illegal to rent any unit until you register it with the FMB Fire Control District. To enroll and schedule an inspection, contact the District at 239-590-4200. The process includes a $25 registration fee.

    You are exempt if you do not advertise your home as a transient, vacation, short-term or timeshare; if the owner occupies one of the two-family units for at least six months each year; the property receives inspection under the Florida Fire Prevention Code for hotels, motels, apartments, and condominiums; or it is an owner-occupied single family home.

    Fire Marshal Martin emphasizes that “this is not in any way a ruse to get inside homes to write code infractions and collect fines; this is strictly Safety First.” Inspections began in the spring and are now approaching 200. “We try to do 10 a week, between myself and Fire Prevention Specialists Bill Genevrino and Lloyd Adams. We are so fortunate to have Bill and Lloyd – they are knowledgeable, professional, have outstanding people skills and are really great!”

    Inspections begin outside with storage and common areas. Personnel cannot enter the interior unless they have the permission of the owner or agent, but once in examine smoke detectors, lighting and egresses. “This ensures the safety of our citizens, contractors, and the team of highly-trained professional firefighters who have risky jobs every day,” Martin explains.

    Here For You

    The Fire Marshal describes the typical property owner reaction to the inspection as “’Oh my, I did not realize that!’ We actually get a lot of Thank You’s! A big advantage of the FMB Fire Control District conducting the process is we see everything with a fresh eye. Sometimes when you see something every day, like a gasoline can next to the hot water heater, you don’t think twice, but things pop out to us. What may not seem a big issue often requires immediate action.”

    If you rent and have a concern, immediately contact the FMB Fire Control District because “your safety is our #1 priority,” Martin reminds. “If a problem exists, it is important to remedy it; if not, we reassure you so you can rest easy and enjoy your vacation. Remember the FMB Fire Control District is here 24-hours-a-day, 365-days-a-year, so there is never an inconvenient time to ensure your safety. We pride ourselves as a fire department on always being there for our residents and visitors. Everything we do revolves around that.”

    He describes the Fort Myers Beach Fire Control District as “a true team of professionals, from bottom to top. Our new Chief, Matthew Love, is amazing and a tremendous asset to our organization. It is an honor and privilege to stand shoulder-to-shoulder with the citizens of this great island community. Our ultimate goal is to keep open the lines of communication to protect you and our neighbors. As such, I welcome the opportunity to talk or correspond anytime, so call or email me at 239-297-4294 or rmartin@fmbfire.org.”

    The Fort Myers Beach Fire Control District: keeping life on the beach safe!

    Gary Mooney