The fatal fire at the Marco Polo Condominium drew international attention to the longstanding issue of how best to protect Honolulu residents living in high-rises without fire sprinklers.

There are 358 residential high-rise condominium properties, as well as hundreds of other residential structures over 75 feet tall that do not have fire sprinkler systems, according to the Honolulu Fire Department. Any high-rise built in Honolulu before 1974 was not required to retrofit for fire sprinklers.

In the wake of a tragedy that took three lives, displaced dozens and caused more $100 million in damage, it is our responsibility to come together to develop common sense solutions.

The fire at the Marco Polo apartments killed three people.

Anthony Quintano/Civil Beat

We have to prioritize which buildings need sprinkler systems in all units and which residents are most at risk.

We agree with the notion of pursuing fire prevention solutions for structures built before the current sprinkler requirement went into effect.

However, condo unit owners should not have to bear all of the costs if retrofitting is the most practical solution. In many cases, fire sprinkler systems may be cost-prohibitive and other safety measures should be adopted.

The City Council’s Executive Matters Committee recently deferred action on Bill 69, a measure that would require the installation of an automatic fire sprinkler system in all residential high-rises in Honolulu over the next five years, to give all relevant stakeholders time to evaluate an array of options.

We asked Council Chair Ron Menor to convene a community meeting on Saturday, Sept. 16, from 10 a.m. until noon at the city’s Mission Memorial Auditorium.

The public is encouraged to attend and participate in the discussion.

The additional time means we’ll be able to receive an update to the findings of a comprehensive 2005 study by the Residential Fire Safety Advisory Committee that investigated the issue of retrofitting Honolulu high-rises built before 1974 with automatic fire sprinkler systems.

Twelve years ago, the RFSAC came up with recommendations to explore options, requirements, time frames, costs, incentives and benefits regarding residential high-rise safety applications. The reconstituted committee is expected to produce an updated set of recommendations in six to eight weeks.

Each condominium property is unique, and each association of apartment owners and their management companies must evaluate the best fire prevention solution applicable to their property.

If the City Council and Legislature enact new fire prevention requirements, we should provide a range of financing assistance, incentives and alternatives that similarly address different needs (for example, seniors on fixed income and building features that make sprinklers unrealistic).

We have heard from other fire prevention organizations and entities about new technologies, like fire retardant paint, that may be able to address the needs of certain buildings rather than requiring fire sprinkler systems.

The City Council plans to work closely with the Residential Fire Safety Advisory Committee, and will promote collaboration among the participants to develop ranges of solutions that are applicable to different situations.

The time for definitive action on this issue is upon us. We must take immediate steps to prevent another tragedy.

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