Historic Florida Hotel Tackles Fire Detection and Protection Issues

Largo Fire Rescue has warned management of the old hotel that its fire protection is dangerously deficient.

BELLEAIR - After more than a year of warnings from Largo Fire Rescue, the Belleview Biltmore Resort & Spa has assembled a team of experts to deal with fire safety issues at the 109-year-old hotel.

While the fire department has not conducted a complete inspection in recent months, Largo fire officials told hotel management in the past that there are major inadequacies in fire protection, including "dangerous deficiencies" in the fire alarm system, areas of the hotel without sprinkler coverage and battery-operated alarms in guest rooms instead of the required electric ones.

"It has now been one year and very little has been completed. I do understand that the future of the hotel is in question. But it is still open and operating as a hotel with several hundred guests occupying a structure and rooms that have severe life safety deficiencies," fire inspector Donald Feaster wrote on Oct. 4.

Largo Fire Marshal Jim Warman said the team, formed by engineers, fire protection experts and historians, is needed because the hotel is a historic structure.

"So we don't require something that would change the historic fabric of the building," Lt. Warman said.

Largo Fire Rescue oversees fire protection at the hotel because the department manages the Belleair Bluffs Fire Department, which serves Belleair.

Richard Wilhelm, chief executive officer of Trust Hotels, which manages the Biltmore, insisted the hotel is safe.

"We go overboard with our risk management and fire, life safety programs," Wilhelm said.

He listed several safety measures already in place, including an extensive sprinkler system installed by the Army Corps of Engineers during World War II, a state of the art fire alarm system throughout the property, weekly and monthly risk assessment meetings and 24-hour security throughout the hotel.

He also said the hotel is built of heart pine, which is said to petrify and become fire retardant.

"We would never knowingly jeopardize anybody's safety," said Samuel Downing, chief operating officer of Trust Hotels, at a Town Commission meeting Tuesday to inform officials of the hotel's situation. The hotel's compliance problems date back to over a year ago. Largo Fire Rescue said in a letter to the hotel in October 2004 that persistent problems exist, including blocked access to one of the escape towers, missing sprinkler coverage in certain areas, defective sprinkler heads and smoke detectors and incorrectly placed detectors.

Fire Chief Jeffrey Bullock said the hotel's status as a historic structure has contributed to the lag in compliance. When the fire department first approached the hotel's management, the department was informed the hotel might be demolished.

In recent months, as the possibility of preserving the hotel was floated, the city sought a way to get the hotel to comply with fire codes while protecting the hotel's historic integrity.

In January 2005, the hotel's management informed Largo Fire Rescue it had a plan to bring the hotel into compliance.

Downing wrote the fire department in October 2005 that the hotel had completed a number of improvements, including reworking the main kitchen alarm system, replacing failed or missing smoke detectors and replacing 160 of the 260 sprinkler heads. He added that the hotel's prospective new owner could take care of smoke alarms in the guest rooms during renovations.

A Dec. 17 inspection by the Department of Business and Professional Regulation, however, revealed some serious violations still exist.

The inspection found at least six fire extinguishers with expired or missing inspection tags, an expired fire sprinkler inspection report, an exit sign that was not illuminated and a lack of smoke detectors for the hearing impaired.

From Dec. 29 to 31, Largo Fire Rescue personnel had to monitor the hotel because management had not contracted with a third party to monitor signals on the fire alarm system, as required by law.