Hurricane Shutters Trapping Fla. Residents in Homes

July 19--Esther Mibab, 66, felt nervous in her home in The Acreage. So nervous that she kept her accordion-style hurricane shutters closed, even in the off-season. Closed and locked. From the outside.

Authorities say that cost her her life. After a fire erupted at her home one morning in January 2008, the result of a pot left on a stove, firefighters spent 40 minutes sawing through the shutters. By the time they found her, she was unconscious. She later died at the hospital.

Firefighters say they've stressed for years that window coverings should be up only when storms are threatening, and shouldn't be used as security devices.

Now a Central Florida lawyer is pushing the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission to pass a rule requiring manufacturers to build window coverings so people can release them from the inside.

Barring that, Glenn Williams said in his petition, manufacturers should be required to notify current users of the danger and should post warning labels on both the outside and inside of new products.

A commission spokesman told The Palm Beach Post last week that the issue is under review. But Williams provided a June 9 letter from the commission saying it would not consider the request.

"They said there hasn't been enough deaths. Unbelievable," he said.

But the commission's letter also said that such rules aren't needed.

Of 12 deaths listed by the law firm, none occurred during a hurricane or even when one was threatening. Only three occurred during the hurricane season and "the manner in which the shutters were used was likely a key factor in determining the outcomes of these residential fires."

Permanently affixed, movable coverings such as accordions, Bahama awnings, and crank-driven and motorized roll-downs, while more costly, can be slid over a window in seconds when a storm is threatening -- and safely pushed back in seconds after that.

But more economical plywood and steel or aluminum storm panels are heavy and unwieldy; a 10-foot-long one can weigh up to 30 pounds. And panels can take several hours to put up and take down.

Because of that, many people, especially seniors, will leave them up for long stretches of the hurricane season, or all of it, or even all year.

"The fact is, people don't listen," said Leigh Hollins, a retired fire battalion chief in Bradenton. "They put them up and leave them up."

Hollins, a paid consultant to attorney Williams, said people can be overcome by smoke in seconds. On top of that, panels tend to trap heat and smoke, and when firefighters finally do break through, they can be slammed by a backdraft.

Williams conceded there's some merit in the age-old argument that government shouldn't have to pass laws for people who don't realize the obvious.

But "the manufacturer should be responsible for this issue," he said.

"If these dangers are so obvious, then why do homeowners keep dying in fires?" William's client, John D. Smith, said in an e-mail. "If you were to ask 10 homeowners in Palm Beach County how they would get out of their homes if they had their shutters up and the house was on fire, what would they tell you?"

Smith and Williams admit they have motives in addition to safety. Smith makes a storm panel that's connected not by bolts but by a super fastener.

"It's a type of corrugated plastic that adheres like Velcro but stronger," Williams said. "It would stay on in a hurricane but a person could push it out."

He said he and his client will appeal to the consumer group.

The two also are in a legal fight with Florida's Attorney General, saying they are unfairly being targeted.

Williams filed in circuit court in Orlando to block a subpoena from the Attorney General for records from Smith. He said the office is suggesting Smith is conducting misleading advertising by claiming his coverings are as good as bolted-on panels.

Smith contends Attorney General Pam Bondi is doing so at the same time she's encouraging bolt-on panels, which he says can kill. He also said two people who complained to the state actually were competitors.

While the county's fire code doesn't specifically require coverings be removed after a storm passes, it does say rooms used for living or sleeping must have two means of escape. But it exempts one- and two-family dwellings.

In 2007, the West Palm Beach Commission voted to mandate shutters be taken down within three days of a storm. It later repealed the ordinance after social agencies raised concern about forcing seniors to take such quick action.

Wellington engineer Bruce J. Tumin, in an affidavit done in April for Williams, said that after a Miami-Dade couple died in a house fire the day after Hurricane Georges passed, their family sued Home Depot and the manufacturer.

But a circuit judge concluded there was no legal need for a warning label "because 'it's so open and obvious that shutters create a fire trap." Still, Tumin said he still supports the "quick release" devices or the labels.

Copyright 2014 - The Palm Beach Post, Fla.

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