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Fire Inspection Changes Coming to Florida’s Recovery Residences Effective July 1, 2021

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at June 21, 2021

Today, June 21, 2021, Florida Governor Ron DeSantis signed Senate Bill 804 (2021), a bipartisan law proposed by the Palm Beach County Sober Home Task Force, which makes significant changes to Florida’s Life Safety Code and the Florida Building Code as they relate to recovery residences (f/k/a “sober homes”).

[NOTE: SB 804 (2021) has other significant changes for licensed services providers in Florida, as well as persons seeking certification as a Certified Recovery Residence Administrator who needs an exemption from disqualification. Discussion of the new legislation can be found here.]

Effective July 1, 2021, Sections 6 and 7 of the legislation provides that local fire marshals and building departments may not “reclassify” the use of a certified recovery residences to be a “Residential Board and Care” use or anything else beyond what it is – a single family home or duplex – so as to trigger heightened life safety requirements such as fire sprinklers, pull stations, fire alarms, and such other improvements that are not otherwise required of any other single-family and two-family home.

In addition to preclusion of reclassification by fire departments, the legislation also precludes local building officials from doing the same, under a similar “dwelling occupancy” analysis for Business Tax Receipt/Certificate of Use purposes.

This law does not apply to apartment buildings, which may be subject to reclassification based upon the State Fire Marshal standards and local amendments to fire and building codes.

This law also only applies to such homes which are certified by Florida’s recovery residence authority, the Florida Association of Recovery Residences (FARR) or such other homes with a charter from a Congressionally-recognized body (i.e., Oxford House International).

The background of how Florida got to this point is rather lengthy, but in short, the provisions of the Life Safety Code prescribe requirements with which structures must comply to ensure fire safety. The requirements applicable to a structure depend primarily on that structure’s “occupancy type,” such as “one- or two-family dwelling,” “lodging or rooming house,” or “residential board and care facility.” In general, the Life Safety Code prescribes the least onerous requirements on one and two-family dwellings, with the requirements becoming more exacting as the number of occupants in and the public access to a structure increases.

The State recognized that a certified recovery residence has objective measures evidencing that such homes do in fact act as the functional equivalent of a “family,” and therefore the concerns expressed by fire professionals about timely evacuations from such one- and two-family dwelling homes was achieved no differently than a biological family due to the hierarchies in place (CRRA, house manager, peer-support and accountability, etc).

Another reason for this change has to do with the certification process itself, and one of the reasons why this change is only applicable to certified recovery residences. Entities such as FARR have built into their certification standards a requirement that housing providers adopt policies and procedures for emergencies, such as fires and hurricanes, which include mandatory evacuation drills, the placement of fire extinguishers, and other life safety protocols. This additional assurance allowed state policymakers to feel more comfortable that one- and two-family homes were not the functional equivalent of a “boarding house,” or a “lodging or rooming house” where each resident is merely renting a bed, and has no accountability or responsibility for the other occupants.

Last, this change was reinforced by the experience of other local and state governments being on the losing side of federal litigation under the Fair Housing Act and the Americans with Disabilities Act, such as in Louisiana, where the State Fire Marshal refused to grant a reasonable accommodation from the same type of reclassification and required extensive improvements to retrofit the homes, including very costly sprinklers and centrally-wired and monitored smoke and fire detectors, strobe lights, manual pull stations, and other improvements which made the home more of an institutional environment.  These costs made the availability of adequate recovery residential housing unfeasible, and was not a requirement placed upon similarly-situated “families” in single-family dwellings. The federal court found in favor of the Oxford House recovery residence and the state had to pay significant damages and attorneys’ fees.

What will fire marshals and inspectors in Florida be looking for after July 1, 2021? That is a good question. We believe that local governments should follow the model adopted by cities such as Delray Beach (Palm Beach County) and Pompano Beach (Broward County) which require recovery residences to provide an accurate floor plan, window sizes, and occupants per bedroom. This will allow the AHJ (agency having jurisdiction) to be able to confirm that the actual occupancy of the house meets the Standard Housing Code (requiring minimum square footage of habitable space per occupant) as well as standard sized windows for fire evacuation. Having one or more manual fire extinguishers strategically placed within the home is likely recommended, as well as working battery-powered smoke detectors.

It is recommended that local governments should begin to coordinate internally with their City Attorney, fire department, and code enforcement inspectors, so that all can be “in the know” and on the same page once this law becomes effective. This will avoid any delays in inspection that unnecessarily threaten the certificate status of such homes and which could lead to new legal confrontations. We do expect there will be a “learning curve” period as cities and counties in Florida, not well-versed in recovery residences, become educated as to the new law. Please be patient.

Accolades and appreciation go out to the Palm Beach Sober Home Task Force, Palm Beach State Attorney Dave Aronberg, Chief Asst. State Attorney Al Johnson, Florida Senator Gayle Harrell, and Florida Representative Mike Caruso, for once again leading Florida towards a better way to care for the State’s residents who needs these services, as well as those who come from across the country to participate in Florida’s exceptional addiction treatment programs.

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