Could Surfside Happen on Fort Myers Beach?

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There have been 36 bodies recovered from the building that collapsed in Surfside, Florida. Over 100 people are still unaccounted for. A portion of the 12-story tower, built near the beach over 40 years ago, collapsed on June 24th.

Why that building collapsed is under investigation and it’s not yet known how long that investigation will take. The incident certainly has officials all over the state of Florida taking a closer look at when buildings were last inspected.

When we asked Lee County who was responsible for older buildings on the beach they told us they did not have jurisdiction, that each municipality has its own building inspector. On Fort Myers Beach that responsibility falls to the Fire Marshall. We reached out to Fort Myers Beach Fire Department Executive Assistant Fire Chief Ron Martin to find out if what happened in Surfside could ever happen on Fort Myers Beach.

BTRN: After seeing what took place in Surfside with the condo building what were your initial thoughts?
Ron Martin: As Fire and Life Safety professionals, our immediate thoughts were related to the victims, survivors, families, and first responders of this horrific tragedy. Our second thoughts were of all the possibilities that could cause such a catastrophic structural failure. Our final thought was an appreciation of how vital annual fire inspections truly are to identify and mitigate issues to prevent such a tragedy in our community.

The Fort Myers Beach community has a fully staffed Life Safety Division committed to proactive community safety. While our Life Safety Specialists are not trained structural inspectors, they have the training to evaluate a building’s structural competency. They also are vested with the authority to request a licensed structural inspector through our partnership with the Town of Fort Myers Beach (Town) and the Lee County Building Department.

Over the last ten (10) years, through our partnership with the Town and Lee County, the FMBFD Life Safety Division has successfully mitigated several dangerous structural issues which required evacuation orders, or business closures. Shutting down a business or displacing residents from their homes is never an easy decision for a Code Official, however, it is needed to prevent tragedies from occurring.

BTRN: How many condo or hotel buildings actually built on Fort Myers Beach (in the sand) are 40 years or older?
Ron Martin: The building stock in the Fort Myers Beach and San Carlos Communities are best expressed in percentages. As we look at these percentages, it is essential to note that for at least the last 11 years, our community has been experiencing re-development both in commercial buildings and in one and two-family homes.
· 1900-1950: 10% (primarily one and two-family homes)
· 1950-1970: 25% (a mix of one and two-family homes and commercial structures)
· 1970-1990: 25% (Heavy concentration of condominiums and commercial structures).
· 1990-2010: 20% (Commercial, residential, and High-rise buildings, this is the period where re-development starts to occur).
· 2010-Current: 20% (Massive residential and commercial re-development is occurring)

BTRN: What are the inspection/repair rules for older buildings?
Ron Martin: The Fort Myers Beach Fire Department Life Safety Division inspection rules are determined through Florida State Laws, Rules, and Codes adopted by the Florida Legislators and the Florida State Fire Marshal. These rules and laws are specific to ensuring a minimum standard is followed statewide for fire and life safety for all residents and visitors in the State of Florida. In accordance with the most recent edition of the Florida Fire Prevention Code, buildings are classified as either “New” or “Existing,” with no grandfathering provisions being allowed for minimum fire and life safety requirements.
Repairs, renovations, and construction in all commercial buildings require permitting, plan review, and a final inspection by the local building department and the fire department. In addition, repairs, renovations, and construction in commercial buildings need to be completed by the appropriate Florida licensed construction professionals. Adhering to permitting and work being completed by licensed construction professionals cannot be stressed enough. Furthermore, it is imperative that our community be wary of any construction professional willing to do work without an approved permit, approved plans, and/or any required fire inspections.

Finally, the permitting process can be frustrating with all the required documentation, questions, and time. However, this is our best defense to ensure our community’s building stocks provide long-term reliability and safety for visitors and residents.

BTRN: Do you see buildings located in the sand on Fort Myers Beach being inspected just to be safe?
Ron Martin: There is no doubt that several things will change as a result of the Surfside tragedy. Some of these changes will occur in State Laws and Codes, and some of these changes will occur at the local level. What is important, is that these changes need to be enacted after an independent investigation is completed into this tragedy.

As a community, it is essential not to be arbitrary or respond with haste in reaction to this event; we do not know all the facts and circumstances. However, mitigation actions moving forward need to be based upon facts and provide tangible results to enhance safety and prevent such tragedies in the future. The last thing any community wants is arbitrary requirements that do not result in the enhanced safety for residents or visitors.

As we await the countless reports, investigations, and litigation into this tragedy to be completed, our community can rest easy knowing that locally we have a system that has successfully detected structural issues and successfully mitigated the risk. Our local building departments and the FMBFD Life Safety Division work closely to ensure building safety in the community.

BTRN: What role does the salt air, the way the land shifts over time due to the climate, storms, and other similar factors have on taller, older buildings?
Ron Martin: A coastal climate is extremely harsh and corrosive to all building materials and any exposed structural elements. Therefore, routine maintenance and prompt repairs are our best defense in keeping our community safe. In terms of climatological impacts, our climate is changing, coastal erosion and rising sea levels are occurring. Therefore, the long-term impacts on any beachfront building is uncertain. What is certain is that these changes in the climate often occur over decades, and this necessitates owners of these buildings to be vigilant on structural maintenance, repairs and updates to ensure structural resiliency.

BTRN: Are all of the taller buildings on the beach up to code and inspections?
Ron Martin: The FMBFD Life Safety Division enforces the most recently adopted version of the Florida Fire Prevention Code. All of the structures that have been inspected are either compliant or in the process of being compliant.

Our Life Safety Division is comprised of a talented team with diverse professional backgrounds and advanced training in construction techniques, fire science, and building construction standards. Even with all of this training, they are not considered structural inspectors, but they do have enough training to recognize structural concerns.

During annual fire and life safety inspections, Life Safety Specialists evaluate the structure for all types of hazards. While performing an annual inspection, if a Life Safety Specialist has a concern relating to structural stability, a licensed structural inspector will be requested from the Town or from Lee County. This partnership is vital in building a safe community; over the last decade, working with our partners at the Town and Lee County, we have mitigated several potential structural issues deemed unsafe.

BTRN: What should someone do if they see something that looks unusual or unsafe in a condo building or hotel?
Ron Martin: The responsibility for a safe building is ultimately the responsibility of the property owner. As with all things related to Public Safety, we encourage our community to follow the Department of Homeland Security motto of “See something, Say something.” Members in the community should speak up and make a property owner, manager, and/or maintenance person aware of their concern or observation.

If speaking with building ownership, management, or maintenance does not adequately address the concern, then we encourage reporting the problem to the FMBFD Life Safety Division; this can be done through our website at www.fmbfire.org Life Safety and Support Services page, under the “Report a Fire or Life Safety Concern” section. Additionally, our community can report a concern by emailing our Life Safety Division at prevention@fmbfire.org or by phone (239) 590-4210.

4 COMMENTS

  1. Not asked and answered – does Lee County require 40 year structural inspections as Dade and Broward Counties do.

  2. I can think of a few addresses on the north end they should look at and review……not mentioning any hotels by name…….BUT……

    • You mean the one with rusted steel rebar poking through the cement? I think that is perfectly normal. LOL

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