Hurricane shutters put residents at risk when fire strikes

Veteran Florida battalion chief: 'It severely impacts firefighting operations'

ORLANDO, Fla. – A veteran Florida battalion chief says everything from plywood to bolted hurricane shutters can prove to be a deadly obstacle when firefighters arrive at the scene of a blaze.

Chief Leigh Hollins, who retired from Manatee County last year, is using his experience to train firefighters in central Florida and across the state on how to gain quick access to homes that have storm shutters or other window coverings.

"It severely impacts firefighting operations when we have these products on a home and the home is on fire," Hollins said.

A review of fires involving homes with some sort of storm shutters or panels shows 13 cases from Melbourne to Miami where properties were damaged or lives lost.

Four children and an adult were killed in a house fire in Homestead, Fla., in September 2004. State records show the windows were covered in plywood yet no storm was imminent.

That same year, 53-year-old Jorge Sardinas was trapped and died in a house fire in Fort Lauderdale. Sardinas, a Catholic priest, had corrugated metal shutters on his windows. Again, no storm was near.

In both cases, firefighters at the scene reported the window material slowed down their efforts.

"And then when you get inside to search for people our firefighters are at risk, too, one way in, one way out in most of these homes," Hollins said.

The hurricane shutter issues have prompted Winter Park attorney Glenn Williams to file a petition with the Consumer Protection Agency, asking that the federal government mandate that interior release mechanisms be installed on all hurricane shutters.

Williams has filed the petition on behalf of Florida families who lost loved ones, including the relatives of 72-year-old Jeannette Lazarick. Lazarick's windows had corrugated metal shutters in place when she was trapped and died in a kitchen fire in Hollywood, Fla.

Ironically, that fire broke out on June 1, 2007 -- the start of hurricane season.

"There's a reason why you're only allowed to put up shutters during a threat of a storm ... That's because the product is dangerous if you leave it up any longer than that," Williams said.

Each county, city and municipality has a different standard for removing storm shutters or plywood after a storm has passed. The state building code does not offer a timeline but makes it clear homeowners need an exit option when shutters are in place.

The state code reads:

Bars, grilles, covers, screens or similar devices are permitted to be placed over emergency escape and rescue openings, bulkhead enclosures or window wells that serve such openings, provided the minimum net clear opening size complies with Sections R310.1.1 to R310.1.3, and such devices shall be releasable or removable from the inside without the use of a key, tool, special knowledge or force greater than that which is required for normal operation of the escape and rescue opening.

The temporary installation or closure of storm shutters, panels and other approved hurricane protection devices shall be permitted on emergency escape and rescue openings during the threat of a storm. Such devices shall not be required to comply with the operational constraints of Section R310.1.4.

While such protection is provided, at least one means of escape from the dwelling or dwelling unit shall be provided. The means of escape shall be within the first floor of the dwelling or dwelling unit and shall not be located within a garage without a side-hinged door leading directly to the exterior.

Occupants in any part of the dwelling or dwelling unit shall be able to access the means of escape without passing through a lockable door not under their control.