When I accompanied our daughter in her search to buy a condominium in Honolulu a few years ago, we didn’t even think to ask the real estate agent if the unit we liked had a fire sprinkler system or how much fire insurance the building association had purchased or if there were regularly scheduled fire drills.

We were so enamored of the condoʻs sweeping view of Waikiki from its wraparound balcony that we focused mainly on the price, wondering if she could afford the monthly mortgage payments.

In light of the Marco Polo high-rise fire July 14, which resulted in four deaths and damaged 200 units, our lack of curiosity about fire safety now seems naive.

Workers erect scaffolding on the makai side of the Marco Polo building Monday in preparation for more repair work. Courtesy of Brigida Schmidt

Honolulu Fire Department Capt. David Jenkins said it was the largest, most destructive fire in Honolulu’s recent history.

Our daughter and thousands of other condo owners in Hawaii are likely wondering the same thing: How can they make sure their lives and possessions are protected if a fire spreads in their building?

Honolulu City Council member Ann Kobayashi says it will take at least six months before the council determines how to mandate fire sprinkler systems for some — but not all — of Oahu’s 358 high-rise residential condo buildings currently without sprinkler protection.

In the meantime, here are five key things experts say condo owners and renters can do to increase their personal safety and protect their possessions.

Condo Owners’ Insurance

If you don’t have condominium owners’ or renters’ insurance, get it now and make sure you purchase enough, says condominium insurance expert Sue Savio. Don’t skimp.

“And if you already have a condo owner’s or renter’s insurance policy, review your policy each time you renew to be sure your coverage is enough for improvements you’ve made to the unit and for valuable possessions you didn’t have before, “ says Savio.

She is the president and owner of Insurance Associates, an agency that specializes in insurance for condominium associations and individual owners. She sold the Marco Polo association its insurance policies.

Marco Polo resident Stan Hesse retrieves a neighbor’s possessions in a burned-out 26th floor unit the day after the July 14 Marco Polo fire. Courtesy of Brigida Schmidt

After the fire, Savio says she reviewed her own policies and bought more property damage coverage for three of her condominiums that she realized lacked sufficient coverage.

The master insurance policy held by an owners’ association in any residential condominium covers only the replacement of a building’s interior and exterior as it was when it was when originally built. It does not pay for improvements condo owners made to their individual units or to replace their possessions. The same goes for renters — it doesn’t cover replacement of possessions or reimburse them for rent at another place when they have to evacuate from a damaged unit.

Savio says condo owners should also be sure they have enough  coverage for “loss of use” of their dwelling and loss of rent from their tenants when a unit is damaged  and they should have no less than $300,000 in liability coverage.

Public relations executive Sam Shenkus, who lives on the 31st floor of the Marco Polo, says she’s glad she paid for $50,000 “loss of use” coverage for her condo.

“Loss of use” insurance is critical, and it needs to be enough to live elsewhere while you are still paying for the mortgage and electricity and other costs of your damaged unit.

Renters’ Insurance

Nezia Azmi and her husband, Paul Rausch, discovered the hard way the need for renters’ insurance after they had to get out of the damaged unit they were renting in the Marco Polo. The unit is now sealed off, with re-entry prohibited.

Nezia Azmi 

“It was really ignorance on our part that we didn’t buy renters’ insurance,” she says.

Azmi is an administrator at the University of Hawaii College of Education. Rausch is the associate director of the UH Center for Southeast Asian Studies.

Renters may think they don’t need to buy insurance because they are not the owner of the property, “but that is definitely not the case,” she says.

Since the Marco Polo fire, Azmi and her husband had to pay for their relocation expenses as well as buy furniture and other items that would have been covered by renters’ insurance.

“People in condominiums tend to stick to themselves but they should get to know their neighbors and behave like the community they are.” — Jane Sugimura

She says the owner of the condo where they have relocated insisted that they buy renters’ insurance before they could move in.

“On the average, renters’ insurance costs about $15 a month,” says Azmi. “That’s like three trips to Starbucks. It’s inexpensive and definitely worth it.”

Savio says renters often underestimate the replacement value of possessions. “They say, ‘I don’t have much. I could move all my belongings in an hour. But the longer they rent a place, the more possessions they collect, especially if they have rented it for a long time.”

An Evacuation Plan

“Take responsibility,” says Jenkins, the fire department’s information officer. “The best way to survive a fire is not to have one at all. There has to be an emphasis on prevention.”

But he adds, “You should have a personal evacuation plan. If there’s a fire, get out and make sure to close the door behind you to try to prevent its spread, get to safety, activate the building’s alarm and call 911.”

Part of taking responsibility is not only having a personal evacuation plan, but also making sure the owners’ association has a fire escape plan for all the residents that’s regularly updated and communicated to everyone, Jenkins says.

The HFD has detailed  information on fire safety and property protection on its website in the sections titled, “Community Relations and Education” and “Fire and Life Safety Resources.”

Smoke Alarms And Fire Extinguishers

Every condo should have a smoke detector over its bedroom doors and a fire extinguisher.

“The main purpose of a smoke detector is to awaken people when they are sleeping to give them time to get out,” Jenkins says. “Time is a very important aspect of fire safety.”

Smoke detectors are no longer recommended in kitchens because of their propensity to sound an alarm in response to normal cooking smoke, he says.

Fire extinguishers are important, but owners have to know how to use them.

“A fire extinguisher can give a false sense of security when a person remains too long in a burning building, thinking he has the ability to put out the fire when he should be evacuating,” says Jenkins. “Most home extinguishers are only able to extinguish small fires. If a fire is bigger than you are, get out.”

Residents’ Fire Safety Committee

Jane Sugimura says her building has formed it’s own fire safety committee and that other residents of other buildings can do the same.

‘Don’t wait for a fire to find out your alarms don’t work. The time to do something is now,” she says. “People in condominiums tend to stick to themselves but they should get to know their neighbors and behave like the community they are. Then need to work for the sake of the whole.”

Sugimura lives in Pearl One, a 26-story condo building in Aiea that does not have a fire sprinkler system.

The 26th floor of the Marco Polo building is currently sealed off. Anthony Quintano/Civil Beat

Its fire safety committee includes people interested in protecting the building — not all of them are board members.

Fire evacuation plans should includes the locations of elderly and disabled residents who may have trouble evacuating during a fire, she says. Her building’s committee has established a system to make sure safety equipment is in working order.

“If your building’s association does not have a fire evacuation plan now, insist that it creates one,” Sugimura says.

She is the president of Hawaii Council of Associations of Apartment Owners, an education and advocacy group for condo owners.

“The Marco Polo fire has unfortunately been a wake-up call for condominiums across the state,” Sugimura says. “We have to all start working as a community for the good of the whole.”

Marco Polo resident Shenkus agrees condo residents need to come together as a community.

“I know it sounds like a cliche but get to know your neighbors,” she says. “They are your allies. It sounds like a little thing, but your neighbors are the ones who will look out for you in an emergency.”

About the Author