Mayor Kirk Caldwell’s bill to retrofit sprinkler installations in older residential high rises remains in limbo until a newly formed advisory committee presents its fire safety recommendations.

Bill 69, introduced on behalf of Mayor Kirk Caldwell after the Marco Polo condominium fire that left three dead, was deferred at an Executive Matters and Legal Affairs Committee hearing Tuesday.

The Residential Fire Safety Advisory Committee will study new fire safety technologies and ways to reduce the cost of installing sprinklers.

Outside the Marco Polo apartments after the fatal fire that killed three people. Anthony Quintano/Civil Beat/2017

It will also prioritize which of Honolulu’s 358 high rises without sprinklers are at greatest risk of a major fire.  Some council members are considering requiring certain buildings to be retrofitted before others.

The committee plans to have its first meeting next month, but is waiting for the fire department to finalize its investigative report of the Marco Polo fire.

Critics of the bill say condo owners and associations can’t afford the cost, especially when older high rises often have infrastructure in need of an update.

Others worry about seniors living on fixed incomes and say it’s not legal to force owners to install sprinklers in their units.

Owners also complain about aesthetics and cost, Jane Sugimura, advisory committee member and president of the Hawaii Council of Associations of Apartment Owners, said last month.

Looking For Middle Ground

Building height, numbers of units, and whether corridors are inside or outside determine how at-risk a high rise is, Honolulu Fire Chief Manny Neves said during Tuesday’s hearing.

The department’s investigative report should be finished in the next month, but Neves doesn’t believe anything in the report will help lawmakers make a decision.

He hopes to present the fire department’s recommendations to the council by the end of October, after the advisory committee has discussed options.

The fire department suggested the bill be amended to include references to the fire code, which specifies what fire safety measures are appropriate for certain types of buildings.

“It’s not a one-size-fits-all where one rule will fit on every building that we have,” Neves said. “Some buildings have more cement, some buildings have exterior corridors instead of interior, some have alarm systems already in place.”

HFD Chief Manuel Neves support Bill 69 at the Honolulu City Council meeting.
HFD Chief Manuel Neves, right, voiced his support for Bill 69 at a City Council hearing. Cory Lum/Civil Beat

The fire chief said he’s received “overwhelming support” from other departments that have addressed the issue. The National Fire Protection Association has partnered with the city fire department to research what other jurisdictions have done.

Other cities have installed sprinklers in common areas or require smoke detectors, said Assistant Fire Chief Socrates Bratakos. An engineer would need to determine whether a building should have sprinklers throughout the building. 

Since 2006, there have been 111 fires affecting the structure of residential high rises in Honolulu. Buildings without sprinklers have accounted for $4.5 million of the $4.9 million lost in those fires, Bratakos said.

Sugimura, of the AOAO council, said many condos are already looking at ways to make their buildings safer, such as testing alarms.

“No condominium has money in their budget for retrofitting. None. Zero,” she said. “That’s because people don’t understand how condominiums do financing … (They’re) doing the budget now for 2018.”

Honolulu City Council Chair Ron Menor gestures during discussion of Bill 69.
Honolulu City Council Chair Ron Menor recommended Bill 69 be deferred. Cory Lum/Civil Beat

Councilman Trevor Ozawa, whose district contains the most at-risk residential high rises, asked the fire department to provide incentives for sprinkler installation as the government does for installation of solar panels.

“In this case, we’re not spending money to save money,” he said. “People can’t make that connection. But I think the connection needs to made … that you’re going to spend money to save lives, and it could be your own.”

Caldwell also testified at Tuesday’s hearing, saying he “can’t think of a more horrific death than to be burned alive.”

The mayor suggested the Council give greater discounts to residents with fixed or low incomes, and require that riskier buildings be retrofitted sooner.

There are 36,000 residential high-rise units without sprinklers, he said, putting at risk the lives of firefighters and residents. 

“I’m not wedded to any particular language, but I support the bill and I support it moving forward in an expeditious manner, and that we don’t let time slip by and the tragedy of Marco Polo will become a dim memory and no action will be taken,” Caldwell said.

The City Council originally called for the Residential Fire Safety Advisory Committee to be formed in November 2004 — three years after a fire at the Interstate Building on King Street, and three months prior to apartment fires in Makiki and Waikiki.

The latter fire left an elderly man dead. Resolution 195, which was adopted two weeks ago, asked the Fire Department to re-establish the fire safety committee.

In its 2005 report to the City Council, the Residential Fire Safety Advisory Committee presented 11 incentives for the installation of sprinklers and identified buildings that were built before 1975 without sprinklers. That year, Honolulu’s building codes were adjusted to require that new residential high-rises have sprinklers.

Those proposed incentives included a property tax credit, issuing low-interest loans and using savings from lower fire insurance rates to help fund sprinkler installation.

At a hearing last month, Department of Budget and Fiscal Services Director Nelson Koyanagi presented a few possible incentives, including using taxable bonds and allowing seniors on a fixed income to take out loans through the Community Development Block Grants program.

Councilwoman Ann Kobayashi said some council members with older residential high rises in their districts plan on holding a meeting on Saturday, Sept. 16 so the public can learn about other fire safety measures and possible opportunities for financing sprinklers.

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