MONEY TO BURN | PART 1

Fire Rescue warned condo to pay or evacuate premises

 

Amid harsh feelings and mounting costs, a fire department official considered threatening to evacuate a condo to collect an unpaid bill.



WHAT IS FIRE WATCH?

Under the state fire code, most multifamily and commercial buildings must have smoke alarms or sprinkler systems to prevent fires. If those systems are not working, fire inspectors can order a "fire watch" - people acting as human smoke detectors. They patrol the building until the safety systems are repaired.


A building with broken alarms cannot stay open without a fire watch.


Miami-Dade Fire Rescue says that only county firefighters can perform fire watches. In other jurisdictions, security guards or even private citizens can do them.


Under county rules, private businesses are charged $28 to $36 an hour for firefighters on fire watch. But at county buildings, firefighters are paid at their overtime rate, which can reach more than $100 an hour for some officers.


By contrast, the Miami-Dade School District pays $10.85 an hour for private security guards on fire-watch duty at public schools.




WHAT THEY'RE SAYING

‘When it comes to issues regarding the protection of Miami-Dade County residents, we do not cut corners or look for the cheapest solution at the expense of life safety.’

- HERMINIO LORENZO, county fire chief, in an e-mail to The Miami Herald

‘The spent the whole time in their vehicles just sleeping.’

- FERNANDO SALAZAR, finance director for Tampa Cargo, a cargo airline based at Miami International Airport, referring to fire watch

'Prevent it? How do you prevent someone from sleeping?'

- AL SUAREZ, deputy chief of the Miami-Dade Fire Rescue Department

'They used to stay in here and watch 'American Idol.' '

- SERGIO VASSALLO, who works at Radio Shack in the 163rd Street Mall, which was under a fire watch in 2004

'They were always in there watching TV, reading newspapers, playing pool. I saw one guy out front feeding squirrels.'

- PAUL LEVINE, a former building manager at the Towers of Quayside, a Northeast Miami-Dade condo complex that was under a fire watch in 2004 and 2005

'Whether they are watching TV or smoking a cigarette - as bad as they look, they're still doing their job.'

- MANUEL MENA, county fire marshal of the Fire Rescue Department, referring to the fire watchers

'We had guys who were practically working around the clock. How can a human being be working so many hours and be effective? How can he be awake?'

- CARLOS BONZON, former interim director, Miami International Airport, on fire watch at the airport

'It was as bad as the Mafia up North.'

- ROBERT BIRKE, a former construction supervisor for the Turner Austin Airport Team, which was the prime contractor on the massive North Terminal expansion at MIA

'You either pay us or you shut down. . . . Usually, it's cheaper to pay us.'

- WILLIAM VAN METER, MDFR captain who oversees the fire-watch program

jdolan@MiamiHerald.com

Off-duty firefighters who patrolled a Northeast Miami-Dade condo tower for nearly four months in 2004 and 2005 spotted no smoke but sparked plenty of animosity.

"I would walk into our rec room and I would catch them with their feet up on our furniture, sleeping, " said Merrill Lipowsky, who owns a unit in the building, The Towers of Quayside I.

Relations became so strained that one resident uttered racial slurs at her would-be protectors, said Miami-Dade Fire Rescue Capt. William Van Meter, who runs the fire-watch program.

A fire department memo refers to the unnamed woman as the "rude lady" and indicates that at least one firefighter refused to work at Quayside on account of her.

The watch began Oct. 13, 2004, after an MDFR inspector found that a probable lightning strike had disabled the fire alarm. But in the last hectic weeks of the hurricane season, it was difficult to get contractors to do the needed repairs, said Paul Levine, a former building manager.

In the meantime, the fire-watch bills piled up - two off-duty firefighters in the building around the clock, at an average hourly wage of $35.71, MDFR records show. The final bill came to $193,283.

In February 2005, an MDFR accountant e-mailed Van Meter and department Chief Financial Officer Scott Mendelsberg with news that Quayside had not paid its bill. The accountant asked whether it should be referred to the county's collection agency, which, like private collection agencies, takes a cut of whatever it recovers.

"No," Mendelsberg replied. "Are they still on Firewatch? If so, let's threaten them and if necessary inform them as of a certain date (March 1?) firewatch will end and we will seek to evacuate the premises. Let them complain to whoever they think will step in."

However, because the Quayside fire alarm was operational again by then, the fire watch had already been lifted.

In an e-mailed response to The Miami Herald, county Fire Chief Herminio Lorenzo said the idea to threaten the condo with evacuation was aimed at protecting taxpayers - who had already paid for the fire watch that so angered residents at Quayside.

"The taxpayers had paid the county employees and should be reimbursed for this cost, " Lorenzo's e-mail said.

The issue lingered for more than a year, but just in the past month, Quayside's new management "reached an agreement with the fire department relevant to the fire watch charges, " said John D'Errico, a member of the condo's board of directors. He would not reveal the terms of the deal.

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