Honolulu Mayor Kirk Caldwell’s bill to require that older residential high-rises be retrofitted with sprinklers in the wake of the fatal Marco Polo condominium fire was put on hold Tuesday by City Council members.

In the meantime, the council’s Executive Matters and Legal Affairs Committee approved Resolution 195, which would encourage the Fire Department to re-establish a Residential Fire Safety Advisory Committee to evaluate fire safety options in residential high-rises.

The resolution was amended to allow the new committee 90 days to provide early thoughts on what issues the council should consider moving forward.

City Council Chairman Ron Menor, who also chairs the Executive Matters and Legal Affairs Committee, said the committee will still hear the mayor’s bill, but defer it until the Residential Fire Safety Advisory Committee provides recommendations on ways the city can financially assist condo associations and unit owners with the costs.

Investigators sift through the rubble of the Marco Polo condominiums after the fire that killed three people. Anthony Quintano/Civil Beat

Council members voted to amend the resolution by specifying that representatives from the Fire Department, Department of Planning and Permitting, Department of Budget and Fiscal Services, Hawaii Public Housing Authority, Board of Water Supply and others, including fire safety equipment installers, participate on the committee.

Menor said it would be difficult to move the mayor’s bill forward until the council has a better understanding of the cost to retrofit residential high-rises and how the city can provide financial assistance to condo owners who wish to install sprinklers.

The council originally called for the creation of a Residential Fire Safety Advisory Committee in a November 2004 resolution, three years after a fire at the Interstate Building on King Street. It stated that “automatic sprinkler systems have proven to be highly effective in preventing and/or lessening the loss of property and human life in the case of a fire, particularly in high-rise structures.”

Three months later in January 2005, two apartment fires occurred in Makiki and Waikiki — the latter of which killed an elderly man. In 2007, an elderly woman was injured in a fire at Kapiolani Manor. All three fires prompted calls to retrofit older high-rises for sprinklers, but to no avail.

Resolution 195 notes the original Residential Fire Safety Advisory Committee discussed real property tax credits and exemptions, building permit fee reductions, state tax credits, and city-sponsored low interest loans as potential ways to pay for safety improvements in high-rises.

Councilwomen Ann Kobayashi and Carol Fukunaga, whose districts include older high-rises, introduced the resolution. Kobayashi expressed concerns about older residents who may be on fixed income and unable to pay the cost of installing sprinklers.

“The reason for this resolution is how do we help these people? They paid off their mortgage and to go into another loan, that’s difficult,” she said.

Concern Over Funding

At Tuesday’s meeting, Deputy Assistant Fire Chief Socrates Bratakos said the department supports efforts to reconvene the task force.

“It actually warms my heart to hear you folks speaking so positively about” efforts to retrofit high-rises, he said, adding it’s important to bring builders, lenders and others together to find a solution.

High-rises are “complicated structures,” Bratakos said, adding that modern fire safety systems have sprinklers that activate fire alarms, which set off speakers in units and unlock doors to stairwells. Elevators also work in conjunction with the system so the Fire Department can send them to the ground floor for firefighters looking to move up the building.

In newer safety systems, firefighters can also hook hoses up to the sprinklers.

He lauded the original Residential Fire Safety Advisory Committee’s 2005 report and said more data is available now that could enhance it. Bratakos said the department has been reviewing the list of high-rises in that report and coupling it with known risks that complicate firefighting — such as building height, number of units, building layout, alarm system and number of senior residents.

The Residential Fire Safety Advisory Committee in 2005 identified Marco Polo as a higher-risk building. Anthony Quintano/Civil Beat

Department of Budget and Fiscal Services Director Nelson Koyanagi floated several possible ways to lessen the cost of sprinkler installations. For the elderly on a fixed income, he said loans through the Community Development Block Grants may be an option for qualified residents. These loans can be repaid over 10-20 years at no interest, and small payments of $50 per month may be allowed, he said.

Koyanagi also brought up the possibility of issuing taxable bonds and considering condos as improvement districts, which would require certain property owners to pay taxes to fund projects in their own area. He said his department’s deputy director, Peter Biggs, recently retired as a Bank of Hawaii executive and thought banks might be willing to issue some loans because property could be security for the maintenance fee.

Fukunaga agreed that property would be good security for the city if someone dies, sells or transfers their property.

Councilman Ernie Martin said grants, rather than loans, would be better for seniors on a fixed income who may need to spend what would be a $50 monthly payment on groceries.

Jane Sugimura, president of the Hawaii Council of Apartment Owners, supported sprinklers in units, but said it’s impossible to force a unit owner to install sprinklers. She was a member of the original Residential Fire Safety Advisory Committee, which she said struggled with getting owners to install sprinklers.

Most condo owners would have no money to retrofit sprinklers, she said, and simply getting approval for condo board to do so would require a vote where 50 percent of the building’s residents support the initiative.

Many unit owners in town live overseas and rent out their condos to others, Sugimura said. They may not care as much about safety issues, especially if they come with a higher price tag, she said.

Like Sugimura, former Residential Fire Safety Advisory Committee member Richard Port said he was “prepared to serve again.”

Read the Residential Fire Safety Advisory Committee report from 2005 below:

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