Fire alarm thefts leave condo, apartment dwellers
By Lisa J. Huriash
06 September 2014
A new twist in creative crime — the widespread theft of electronic
circuit boards in fire alarms — has left thousands of apartment and
condo dwellers without warning in case of fire, and raised concerns
among safety officials from Tallahassee to Tamarac.
Adding to fears about being caught in a blaze without warning, condo
and apartment residents face the prospect of paying exorbitant fees for
old-fashioned human fire watches.
"My God, they could have been dead in their beds," Janet Bianchi,
president of Margate's Palm Lakes Condominium, said of the thousands of
residents unknowingly living in units without working fire alarms.
"It's just scary we were left vulnerable."
One way to alleviate that vulnerability is for residents in the at-risk
buildings to spend hundreds of dollars an hour for fire trucks or
private security guards to stand watch against fire.
The thefts have triggered an investigation by the state Fire Marshal's
Office, as well as an internal investigation at Margate City Hall, into
how efficiently the department notified residents of a problem that
impacts public safety. "Who knew what, when?" asked Margate Mayor Lesa
Thieves swipe the panels — most cost upward of $1,000 each — to sell as
repair parts for other alarm systems, according to Fire Chief Frank
Babinec of Coral Springs, whose inspectors discovered five missing
panels from one condominium complex on Friday. Another two apartment
complexes were hit within the past month.
The state Fire Marshal's Office, along with the Broward Sheriff's
Office and Tamarac Fire Department, is investigating who is stealing
the units and where exactly the purloined panels end up.
"These are all things we hope to learn more about," fire marshal
spokeswoman Ashley Carr said. "We anticipate a black market value and
have been looking out for these to pop up for sale through various
means, but the questions of who and where are all part of what we hope
Tamarac Fire Chief Mike Burton likens the thefts to air bags stolen out
of cars: "It's a safety feature you depend on to be there."
And Burton worries about firefighters devoting initial efforts to
rescuing crowds of condo residents rather than first fighting the
blaze, which endangers their own lives. "There's a risk for residents,
but to my men and women as well," he said.
Palm Lakes president Bianchi, whose buildings were victimized, doesn't
know how long residents, many in wheelchairs, were without fire
protection. She was outraged when the fire department offered to park a
fire engine at the condos for $250 an hour to offer protection. "It
would have bankrupted us," she said. Then Bianchi learned the thefts
were part of a larger, ongoing problem of which county officials were
When she complained, Margate opened an administrative inquiry into the
fire department's handling of the information.
After a spate of thefts, Coral Springs is preparing to launch a
campaign to notify condos and apartment complexes "to keep a close eye
on the rooms that house these panels and make sure they haven't been
tampered," Babinec said.
In most cases, there's one fire alarm system per building. They are
typically kept behind locked doors in maintenance rooms whose access,
exterior or interior, varies among buildings.
The rooms also house cable, telephone, air conditioning and electrical
equipment, so they are used often and there are many keys for service
Among the thefts:
Tamarac: More than 42 panels have been stolen in eight condos within
the last six months, including Bermuda Club, Hidden Harbor and Lime Bay.
The city has sent postcards to condo property managers apprising them
of the thefts, city spokeswoman Elise Boston said. "In addition, we've
ramped up inspections. Inspections are normally done annually, but
Tamarac has been doing random checks almost weekly."
• Sunrise: Sunrise Lakes Phase IV condo was hit earlier this year,
according to reports.
"Our Police Department and Fire Rescue Department have been very
proactive," said city spokeswoman Christine Pfeffer. "They've worked to
educate residents at multifamily buildings, including posting 'Public
Alert' fliers regarding panel thefts and the need to report suspicious
• North Lauderdale: In the past five months, 14 panels were stolen,
city spokeswoman Jennifer Johnson said. "Our fire department has been
working closely with our [Broward Sheriff's Office] partners, as well
as the state Fire Marshal, to help resolve the crimes," she said.
• Dania Beach: Six panels were discovered stolen from condos since May,
said Broward Sheriff Fire Rescue spokesman Mike Jachles. All were
stolen between March and May.
"There is market value for the parts," Jachles said. "They're
Replacing a panel could cost tens of thousands of dollars, he said,
since older panels no longer meet new codes. "If a panel is stolen,
then the fire code requires them to meet current standards for the
alarm system so it could be very costly to replace these."
• Hollywood: City officials said nine panels have been stolen from four
condo and apartment buildings since May.
• Margate: Three condos have been burglarized, including Palm Lakes, a
sprawling 55-and-older complex. Thefts of panels from 10 buildings at
Palm Lakes was discovered by a private inspection company in August.
Mayor Peerman said nobody at City Hall knew about the rash of thefts
throughout the county until Bianchi called her to complain.
"I'm extremely disappointed," Peerman said. "The welfare of our
residents was not the top priority in making the decision not to tell
Unable to pay the fire department's protection fees, the condo spent
about $600 for a private security firm to stand guard and watch for
fires for four days — just enough time to replace the stolen panels and
change locks on meter rooms.
Bianchi said she received a letter from City Hall — three days after
the thefts — warning residents to secure meter rooms. "The situation
may go unnoticed for several months before the systems are due for
inspection," the letter said.
The notice came too late to prevent the thefts, Bianchi said. "It was
too little too late. It added insult to injury."
The Fire Marshal's Office became aware of the thefts earlier this year,
and about three months ago formed a group composed of themselves, the
Broward Sheriff's Office and Tamarac's Fire Department to combat the
"These thefts create not only a financial problem but also one of life
safety, and the goal is to isolate the source of the problem and take
appropriate steps to stop its continuance," said Carr, of the Fire
But so far, there are no leads on who's snatching the panels. "We're
still working on it," Carr said.
The Sheriff's Office suggests residents make routine checks "to make
sure everything is intact," Jachles said.
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