Friday’s devastating fire in an upper section of the 36-story Marco Polo condominium was one of the the worst in Honolulu history. Three residents in units near the fire’s origin died, victims either of flames or the superheated smoke that poured from the building for hours.

The loss of life is especially tragic because there’s general agreement the fire would have not have spread, and lives would have been saved, if the 46-year-old building had been retrofitted with an automated fire control sprinkler system, as required in all new high-rises.

Coming on the heels of the inferno that engulfed London’s Grenfell Tower just last month, in which 79 residents died, the blaze has renewed calls to require managers of older buildings to add sprinklers.

Investigators sift through the rubble of burned-out units at the Marco Polo condominiums. Anthony Quintano/Civil Beat

But while all agree that sprinklers could save lives, there’s little indication that the political will exists to provide incentives in the form of tax breaks or low interest loans to make the multimillion-dollar investments needed to bring the benefits of sprinklers to older buildings.

Fire codes adopted since the mid-1970s have required all new high-rise buildings to be equipped with sprinkler systems. Two major hotel fires in Las Vegas in 1980 prompted Honolulu to require older hotels to be retrofitted with sprinklers. And in 2002, following a major fire in the top floor of the Interstate Building on King Street two years earlier, older commercial buildings were also required to add sprinklers.

But residential high-rises constructed before the sprinkler regulations went into effect are still exempt from the mandatory retrofitting in Honolulu, as well as in most parts of the United State.

High costs have been cited as the main reason older buildings haven’t invested in the safety and security provided by sprinklers, but they aren’t the only reason previous efforts to require sprinklers have stalled.

Honolulu’s mayor, along with other public officials, have said in recent days they intend to support efforts to extend the sprinkler requirement to more than 300 residential buildings previously identified as lacking sprinklers. Approximately 24,612  individual apartments would be impacted.

The last time the question arose of extending the sprinkler system requirement to older buildings was in 2004-2005, when the Honolulu City Council investigated the issue but backed away from pressing for mandatory retrofits.

It’s instructive to look at the city’s investigation and discussions at that time, since the same or similar concerns raised by those involved at that time are likely to frame the debate to come.

Assessing Costs And Benefits

In 2004, the City Council adopted Resolution 04-334, requesting the Honolulu Fire Department to establish a Residential Fire Safety Advisory Committee to investigate the issue of sprinklers. The advisory committee was to include members representing city and state agencies, the Building Trades Council, condominium owners and building managers, Realtors, insurance specialists and engineers.

The committee “composed of knowledgeable and affected parties would be an effective mechanism to explore options, requirements, timeframes, costs, incentives and benefits related to residential high-rise building fire safety applications,” the resolution stated.

The resolution passed in December 2004, and the committee held its first meeting in February 2005. Its final report was filed May 31, 2005.

During its first meeting, then-Fire Chief Attilio Leonardi set the tone for the committee, stressing the effectiveness of sprinkler systems in limiting the spread of fires, and the potential risks of high-rise fires, where flames can quickly “leap” to upper floors.

But despite the importance of sprinkler systems, the chief told the committee “incentives are needed to address and mitigate the costs associated with retrofitting residential highrises.”

The aftermath of Friday’s Marco Polo fire includes a renewed call for sprinkler systems in older high-rises. Brenton Awa/KITV

A number of possible incentives were discussed, including real property tax credits or exemptions for retrofitting, possible state income tax credits or deductions, and even the possibility of city-backed low interest loans.

In its report to the City Council, the advisory committee largely agreed with the chief on the benefits of sprinklers.

Requiring sprinkler systems in existing buildings “would significantly reduce the life safety and property damage risk from the consequences of fire,” the committee found.

The committee then examined fire risks. According to data gathered by the city, fires in single-family homes “accounted for 43% of the structure fires, 59% of the property damage, and 95% of the fatalities” over a five-year period from 2000 to 2004.

“Fires in high-rise buildings accounted for approximately 3% of the total structure fires and approximately 5%of the total property damage,” the report found. “There were no fatalities as a result of fires in high-rises during this time period. There were five injuries, which represent approximately 3% of those injured in fires.”

A total of 21 people died in structure fires during the period, 20 in single-family homes. There were no fatalities in the fires occurring in high-rise residential buildings, with or without sprinklers.

Committee members drew different conclusions from these data.

Richard Port, a retired educator and longtime condominium activist who served on the advisory committee, argued for “a thorough cost-benefit analysis of retrofitting highrise residential buildings.”

Port, in a telephone interview Tuesday, said the statistics clearly showed “substantial differences” in risk.

“Clearly, wooden structures and concrete structures are very different,” Port said.

“It was a terrible, tragic thing that happened (at the Marco Polo),” Port said. “But there are hundreds of wooden structures that burn. It simply does not appear reasonable to require sprinklers in older high-rise buildings if you’re not going to simultaneously require individual houses to have sprinklers.”

But instead of promoting an across-the-board requirement for residential sprinkler systems, the Legislature passed a law in 2012 blocking any county from requiring the installation of sprinkler systems in most single-family homes. And that law was renewed and extended during the 2017 session for an additional 10-year period, to expire in 2027.

High-rises pose special risk that need to be considered in deciding about sprinkler system retrofitting. Screenshot of live feed

But in an eerily prescient statement, Leonardi told City Council members in 2005 “that fires in high-rise buildings are much harder on the part of the firefighters because it requires a large amount of personnel, as well as having to take all the equipment up the stairs, which may take about 15 to 20 minutes to actually put water on the fire. By then, the fire has really advanced to where it is hard to control.”

“There is potential for a real tragedy in a high-rise building,” Leonardi said.

Another fire department official said that while most fire deaths and damage occurs in single-family homes, “the potential consequences are greater when you impact many residences within a high rise building.”

Battalion Chief Lloyd Rogers said, “the risks in high-rise buildings are much greater because you are not just dependent upon yourself or your family in your home. You are dependent on people that are living below, above, or next door to you. On top of that, the response to get to a fire in a high-rise building with the equipment to pump water onto the fire takes that much longer.”

The committee also echoed Chief Leonardi’s call for the City Council and the Legislature to enact legislation “to provide incentives to owners of residential structures who are willing to install fire sprinklers.”

But the Legislature killed a bill during the 2005 legislative session that would have provided up to $5,000 in tax credits or deductions to apartment owners who pay to install sprinklers. The bill passed the House, but died in the Senate.

And in the intervening years, neither the Legislature nor the City Council has taken any action to provide incentives for installation of sprinklers.

Meanwhile, the estimated cost of sprinkler retrofits doubled from 2005 to 2013, and is likely higher today. Without incentives, it seems unlikely that condominium boards, already under attack for spiraling maintenance fees and costs, will be lining up to pursue sprinkler retrofits, despite the Marco Polo fire.

Now it’s up to our elected officials to step up and create workable solutions instead of sound bites in response to last week’s tragedy.

About the Author

  • Ian Lind
    Ian Lind is an award-winning investigative reporter and columnist who has been blogging daily for more than 20 years. He has also worked as a newsletter publisher, public interest advocate and lobbyist for Common Cause in Hawaii, peace educator, and legislative staffer. Lind is a lifelong resident of the islands. Read his blog here. Opinions are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect Civil Beat's views.