Este informe no está disponible en español.
Security Has Deadly Side
By Denise-Marie Balona
APRIL 23, 2001
Long tradition. (PHOTO: ED SACKETT/ORLANDO SENTINEL)
KISSIMMEE -- Carmen Zayas installed iron bars on the windows and doors of her newly renovated Osceola County home as decoration. Growing up in Puerto Rico, she had admired the elaborate ironwork adorning homes in Old San Juan, fixtures her parents could not afford.
"I said when I got my house I would have them," said Zayas, 58, a retired communications consultant.
But the decorative bars, whose architectural roots date to 15th-century Spain, have become a safety threat as the styles of homes have changed here and abroad. As the number of Hispanics moving to Central Florida swells, so does the concern from fire and building officials. They say the same iron bars that let cool breezes in while keeping intruders out can trap people inside during emergencies, turning burning homes into deadly cages.
Hispanics certainly are not the only residents who use the iron burglar bars, known as rejas in Spanish, but they are the ones who consider it part of their culture, a piece of their Latin American homelands.
Fire safety codes allow the bars but require that bedroom windows have quick-release devices so they open at the push of a button or a floor-level latch in case of an emergency. It is illegal to have burglar bars bolted or welded to all bedroom windows or to use bars that can only be opened with a key, which can be lost. Many residents are not aware of those rules, do not want burglar bars that can open or do not want to pay extra for the safety releases.
In recent years, burglar-bar casualties have been reported across the country: Seven siblings, all under 9, perished in a 1993 Detroit fire. In 1998, an Orlando man died as neighbors tried frantically to pry the security bars from his house. Officials said bars likely impeded the escape of an 80-year-old DeLand woman who died in a 1999 fire sparked by a candle.
Deaths linked to bars rise
Officials say that despite a downward trend in fire deaths across the United States, the number of deaths related to security bars has risen. The National Fire Protection Association reports that between 1980 and 1985, less than one fire death per year was attributed to hindrances such as burglar bars. That number has since risen to 16 to 20 deaths a year. The increase has led the agency to launch educational campaigns targeting Hispanics. The Central Florida Red Cross, which serves Orange, Osceola and Seminole counties, also is preparing a bilingual outreach program focusing on security bars and other fire dangers.
Most area governments and fire departments, however, say they do not have the manpower to police communities. They do not have time to check windows to be sure they have quick-release devices. Most local governments require permits for installing the bars, and homeowners cannot get approval if the bars do not have safety releases. Yet in communities where the bars are popular, such as heavily Hispanic Buenaventura Lakes and Poinciana in Osceola County, officials have no records of any permits. Neither Osceola nor Orange County officials have issued citations for bars that do not meet fire codes.
Latches are expensive
The release devices are not cheap -- the cost starts at $150 per window -- and many homeowners say they can't afford the additional expense. There also is the risk of break-ins, although experts say the latches can be placed out of burglars' reach.
"If somebody wants it for safety, they don't want it to be able to open," said Amir Dikic of Metal Studio in Kissimmee. He installed Zayas' custom-made bars but says he did not know about permitting or safety codes. Zayas spent almost $3,000 on her bars but will now have to pay another $450, at least, for safety releases.Welder Robert Durapau, co-owner of E-Z Hitch & Trailer in Altamonte Springs, has watched frustrated customers leave his store when he says he will not install bars without safety latches. Durapau is involved in a program launched in Casselberry that aims to eliminate unsafe bars. Casselberry Fire Marshal Renzie Davidson started it in 1997 after reading that four children died in a Tampa fire because of security bars. He and his staff canvassed neighborhoods and discovered 200 homes with illegal bars. They worked three years to have them removed or have latches added.
Bars can block rescuers
Davidson said fires are not the only concern. The bars also can prevent firefighters from reaching someone experiencing a heart attack or other medical emergency. Fire and building officials know there's a problem with improperly installed bars.
"It's just a problem of finding the resources and the manpower to get the job done. There are ways," he said.
Central Floridians could suffer the same fate as their neighbors to the south if something isn't done, said Mike Krenn, Orange County's chief building inspector. Krenn worked in Miami before coming to Orlando and saw how officials' slow reaction to the use of security bars led to tragedy.
In April 1989, a Miami family of seven could not get out of their burning home because of burglar bars and escaped by jumping out an upstairs bathroom window, the only unbarred exit. Later that year, a 5-year-old Miami boy fled a Christmas blaze by wriggling through a 9-inch space below an iron cage around his back door. His mother did not get out in time. In 1988, a Dade County man and his three sons died behind burglar bars. In 1986, a mother and five children in Miami died in their secured home during a fire.
In South Florida, Krenn said, the bar problem "got away from them and it took a while for them to catch up with the problem."
"That's probably what's happening here right now," he said.
Ironwork popular in Spain
The use of ornate iron bars, which are available today in a wide variety of colors and styles, dates to Spain during the late 15th or early 16th century. They were used to maintain privacy in homes and keep women safe. Putting bars on windows was particularly popular in the southern, more tropical parts of Spain, because they allowed better ventilation and were cheaper than glass, said Ralph B. Johnson, an architecture professor at Florida Atlantic University who has taught in that country.
As Spain colonized South and Central America and the Caribbean, its people took the architecture with them. The bars were not hazardous then because houses were built around courtyards. It was easy to slip out from any room in case of fire.
Sandra Mislan, 45, a Deltona mother of two, does not have to worry about that. Safety latches were a priority when she installed security bars about five years ago after a neighbor's house was burglarized.
"There are two things I'm afraid of and that's fire and water," Mislan said. "I thought of keys. I thought of locks. I went the other way."
Still, she has concerns about her cousin, Hector, who lives across town. His bars do not have the safety feature.
Zayas is saving now to have release latches added to her bars. She said she was not aware of the dangers of the bars -- or the fire codes -- when she bought them.
"It should be something people should know about," she said.
GUIDELINES FOR SECURITY BARS
The National Fire Protection Association calls for these safeguards:
*All rooms in a home should have primary and secondary means of escape, such as a door and a window.
*If a window is one means of escape, and you want to install burglar bars, include a quick-release device so the bars open easily in case of fire or other emergency. These releases can be buttons, handles or foot latches, so that even children can operate them and escape.
*Bars with locks are unsafe because the keys can be lost.
*Most communities require permits for security bar installations. Homeowners must show that their security bars can be easily opened in case of emergency to get approval. However, few Central Florida governments have issued permits or checked whether the bars have safety releases.