Operation Get Out Alive

Although numerous articles have appeared about the dangers of residential window burglar/security bars for residents and firefighters during emergency operations, few workable solutions have been offered. The Casselberry (FL) Fire Department’s Operation Get Out Alive was such a success in our community that we want to share our experience with other municipalities nationwide.

In 1997, the Tampa Tribune reported that four children perished in a fire in their Ybor City, Florida, home. The article emphasized that neighbors could have rescued the victims if security bars had not been present on the windows. By the time the fire department arrived, it was too late. Soon afterward, our department devised a proactive plan to prevent a similar catastrophe from happening in our city.

IDENTIFYING THE PROBLEM AND SOLUTION

First, we had to determine if we had a problem and to what magnitude it affected our city. Engine companies and rescue units surveyed their fire hydrant districts, looking for burglar bars on residential structures. They identified nearly 200 homes and forwarded this information to the Fire Marshal’s Office for review.

We contacted local burglar bar manufacturers and installers for information on the types of mechanisms available to open the bars from the inside. Two companies assisted the city. The cost to property owners would be between $150 and $200 per window. This gave us an idea of the impact the program would have on residents and provided us with a good platform for program approval.

The Casselberry Fire Marshal’s Office arranged a meeting with the fire chief and city manager, seeking their support and guidance on the new project. We consulted the city commissioners; they supported the fire marshal’s fire safety initiative.

Casselberry’s building code was revised to require each sleeping room to have at least one window or door that can be opened to the exterior and burglar bars that can be opened from the inside without the use of separate keys or tools. Future bar installations would require approval. The revised city fire code required the removal of obstructions to or on the fire escapes, stairs, passageways, doors, and windows that could interfere with fire department operations or the evacuation of occupants in case of a fire. The fire inspector was empowered to issue an order for compliance by a specific date.

There was concern that some residents might not be able to afford the cost of retrofitting. A local philanthropic organization, Wayne Dench Charities, agreed to subsidize all or part of the cost of modifying the bars for residents who could not afford them. The city attorney advised the fire department to solicit voluntary compliance, using the code enforcement board only as a last resort.

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GETTING THE WORD OUT

On weekends, the fire inspector and I hand-delivered letters and personally addressed our concerns to residents. We advised of the dangers of having burglar bars on their homes, since they could not be opened from the inside without keys, tools, or special knowledge. Additionally, we informed them of the importance of having in their homes good working smoke detectors and practicing exit drills in the home (E.D.I.T.H.). We also gave them copies of the city ordinance and Life Safety Code Section 21-2.2.1 (requiring two separate means of escape from each sleeping area). Also, we provided fact sheets from the National Fire Protection Association’s (NFPA) Center for High-Risk Outreach and the above-mentioned Tampa Tribune article.

We obtained permission to check the bars and were invited into residents’ homes for fire safety inspections. Residents who were not at home were notified by mail. As might be imagined, there was a lot of resistance to the program because of the expense of retrofitting. And since some of these bars had been installed almost 20 years before, some residents believed the existing bars should be “grandfathered,” since no permit was required at the time they were installed. Additionally, they had not considered windows as a possible means of escape.

Property owners had several options: remove the bars; retrofit them so they could be opened from the inside with a pushbutton, foot pedal, or other device; remove the padlocks from the bars that had operable portions; leave keys in the double-key deadbolts on others; or install a security system in place of the bars.

After a year with little voluntary response, another notice was sent warning residents of the hazardous condition existing in their homes. The notice included a copy of the city code, the Life Safety Code, a list of contractors, and an expected date of compliance. Some residents complied immediately; others resisted and received a final notice and a date on which to appear before the code enforcement board.

At this point, with a 70-percent compliance rate, a near-tragic fire in south Orlando brought our program into the spotlight. Family members trapped in their home by burglar bars nearly lost their lives. Fortunately, at the time, several neighbors were home and were able to pry the bars open from the outside.

MEDIA HELPS SPREAD THE WORD

We used this opportunity to contact local television stations and inform them of our program. Three stations did a follow-up segment showing viewers the correct method for installing the bars with mechanisms to allow emergency escape. This allowed us to demonstrate the urgent need for retrofitting unsafe burglar bars and raised the community’s awareness of the danger of burglar bars. We obtained a videotape of the television segment and used it to persuade the remaining residents to comply.

Within two years, we achieved 100-percent compliance without one resident’s having to appear before the code enforcement board. The program would not have been successful without the cooperation and support of the city commission, the city manager, the city attorney, the fire chief, and local television stations. Additionally, the Orlando Sentinel provided newspaper coverage, and Wayne Dench Charities provided financial assistance.

INVOLVING RELATED BUSINESSES

In addition to addressing local concerns, the Casselberry Fire Marshal’s Office started a letter-writing campaign to alert local realtors and enlist their help in raising homeowner awareness. The office sent letters to the National Association of Realtors, the Florida Board of Realtors, and the Greater Orlando Association of Realtors, which published an article on the burglar bar danger in its Realtor Report publication. The letters prompted all realtors to take responsibility for informing homeowners and buyers of the code requirements pertaining to burglar bars.

The Fire Marshal’s Office also sent registered letters to all burglar bar manufacturers and installers in central Florida, apprising them of the gravity of the situation. In these letters, the city of Casselberry and the Casselberry Fire Department held the contractors responsible for the proper, safe installation of all future burglar bars and disallowed any waivers for any installation in the city not compliant with our adopted codes. The National Ornamental and Miscellaneous Metals Association’s Standards Committee has also sent out a bulletin to members advising them of the code requirements for residential burglar bar installations.

LESSONS LEARNED

The burglar bar program’s success can be attributed to careful planning in several areas.


Exterior view of burglar bars.
Click here to enlarge image

-Survey of burglar bar installations in the city. We determined the number of burglar bar installations and what was needed to make them safe. This provided a basis for formulating a program to present to city officials.

Coordination and full support of city officials. We presented our report to city officials and consulted with the fire chief, city manager, city attorney, and city commission to design a program and gain approval.

Direct contact with residents and property owners. Personal contact with those concerned was extremely effective in communicating the dangers of burglar bars in fires and the importance of making them safer.

Raising community awareness through extensive media coverage. Newspaper, magazine, and television coverage was extremely helpful in emphasizing the importance of our program to the public.


Interior release mechanism (in locked position) allows occupants to open burglar bars from inside.
Click here to enlarge image

Finding affordable solutions from local ornamental ironworking businesses. Working with related businesses enabled us to design solutions that were not burdensome to residents and property owners.


The interior release mechanism is pulled to release the burglar bars.
Click here to enlarge image

Involving related businesses in mitigating the problem. Sending letters to realtor associations and the burglar bar manufacturers/installers played an important role in further spreading the message and reducing the danger to residents.

Financial aid from a philanthropic organization. For those residents who could not afford the cost of mitigating the burglar bar dangers, we lined up financial aid through a local charity, Wayne Dench Charities.

Additionally, we have created a training module for quick removal of noncode-compliant burglar bars in neighboring jurisdictions.

Although this undertaking was not easy and required a great deal of determination by all involved, our goal was ultimately accomplished within two years without using any public funds.

Thanks to Renzie Davidson III and Barbara Downs for their assistance in preparing this article.


Interior view of operable burglar bars.
Click here to enlarge image

RENZIE L. DAVIDSON is a 15-year fire service veteran and fire marshal for the Casselberry (FL) Fire Department. He is a Florida-certified paramedic, fire inspector, and fire investigator. As a result of implementing the burglar bar program, he was named the 1999 Florida State Fire Marshal of the Year and received the Knight Bachelor award from Operation Life Safety.


These burglar bars are bolted to the house and cannot be opened from inside.
Click here to enlarge image

(Photos by Thomas Berrios.)

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