Hawaiian High-Rise Units Have a Serious Sprinkler Problem

Marco Polo high rise fireThe Marco Polo high-rise fire took four lives and prompted officials to re-examine sprinklering. Photo by Anthony Quintano

Wrangling between condo owners and fire officals looks to us more like pretending the problem of 39,400 unsprinklered units doesn’t exist.

Editor’s note: A new regulation meant to address the lack of sprinklers in 358 Honolulu high-rise properties is meeting opposition from condo owners, and, for better or worse, officials are listening. As the report below, published with permission explains, many buildings will get a pass, if they have certain provisions in place, such as an exterior staircase that goes up 19 floors, or an interior staircase up to the 9th floor. Am I alone in feeling that I would not want to be the person living on or above the 19th floor, looking down at flame and smoke pouring out from the floors below, knowing I had to run the gauntlet to survival?–MP

Here’s the story, by Natanya Friedheim;

Some Honolulu High Rises Don’t Need Sprinklers, Fire Safety Panel Says

Residential buildings could each be evaluated to determine if a sprinkler retrofitting is necessary, a City Council committee is told.

The Residential Fire Safety Advisory Committee, formed by the Honolulu City Council in August after the Marco Polo fire, is exploring ways to retrofit at least some residential high rises in Honolulu with sprinkler systems without breaking the bank for condo owners and associations.

Fire chiefs discuss Bill 69

Hot Topic. Fire chief Manuel Neves discusses Bill 69. Photo by Cory Lum

The 15-member panel presented options that would exempt some high rises from a requirement to install sprinklers to the council’s Executive Matters and Legal Affairs Committee on Tuesday.

Council Chair Ron Menor, who also chairs the committee, asked the advisory panel to submit a final report by the end of October. It will then be used to amend Mayor Kirk Caldwell’s proposed Bill 69, which would require sprinklers to be installed in all older residential high rises in Honolulu.

Mayor Kirk Caldwell introduced Bill 69 following the Marco Polo condominium fire. The Marco Polo condominium fire in July, which resulted in four deaths, prompted Caldwell to introduce the bill. Council members are concerned that condo owners and associations can’t afford the installations.

“I understand the need to strike a balance here,” Menor said. “We want to improve and enhance fire safety in our residential high-rise buildings on the one hand. On the other hand we’re very sensitive to the substantial, huge, financial cost burdens on condo owners and associations.”

Residential high rises built before 1975 were not required to have fire sprinklers. That’s left 358 of these properties, containing about 39,400 living units, without sprinklers, according to the Honolulu Fire Department.

In August, the Executive Matters and Legal Affairs Committee deferred Caldwell’s bill to give the panel time to present fire safety recommendations. The committee again deferred the bill Tuesday so the panel can finish its report. Menor is hoping for a final vote on Caldwell’s bill by Nov. 1 City Council meeting.

Individual Evaluations

Honolulu Fire Chief Manny Neves, who heads the advisory panel, said the panel may recommend that the associations for each high rise hire a licensed architect or engineer to evaluate their building for fire safety. The evaluator would then score the building based on the international building code and the National Fire Protection Association’s Life Safety Code, Neves said.

“If you have a passing score, then that wouldn’t require a full sprinkling of your entire building,” Neves said. “It would be somewhere between a full sprinkling of your building and doing nothing at all.”

Socrates Bratakos, an assistant fire chief, offered a few examples of buildings that might not need sprinklers. If all the units in an apartment building have exterior access up to the 19th floor, or the building has interior corridors up to the ninth floor, the building wouldn’t require sprinklers, Bratakos said. If the advisory committee approves those exemptions, the number of buildings required to to install sprinklers would decrease from about 360 to 150, he said.

Councilwoman Carol Fukunaga said that type of thinking would please condominium owners. She and other council members met with about 200 people who live in high rises to discuss fire safety at a public meeting this month.

“It’s really based on individual circumstances that affect them,” she said. “There’s a big difference between a building that is totally concrete versus one that is wood.”

This story is reprinted with permission from the publisher, Honolulu Civil Beat. To visit the original, click HERE.