A Honolulu City Council committee now says not all older residential high rises should be retrofitted with sprinkler systems — only those 10 stories and taller.

Honolulu Mayor Kirk Caldwell, who called for sweeping upgrades of hundreds of buildings soon after a high-rise fire claimed the lives of four people earlier this year, also is backing off that position.

The City Council legal affairs committee on Tuesday considered an amended version of Bill 69, introduced by Caldwell in August after the Marco Polo condominium fire, that would exempt high rises under 10 stories and buildings with exterior hallways from sprinkler installations in those built before 1975, the year Hawaii’s state fire code was updated to require sprinkler systems in high rises.

The committee deferred the bill, but committee chair Ron Menor said he’s considering adding it to the January committee meeting. 

Under Caldwell’s original proposal, 358 buildings would have needed to be retrofitted.


Mayor Kirk Caldwell offered comments on an amended version of Bill 69, which he introduced after the Marco Polo condominium fire. Natanya Freidheim/Civil Beat

The amended version introduced by Menor requires roughly 150 buildings to be retrofitted within 12 years of the measure passing, with a possible three-year extension.

Caldwell told the committee Tuesday that he sees the revised proposal as a way to move forward with some improvements to the current situation.

“I am very passionate about this bill because it’s about saving lives,” Caldwell said. “We’ve lost four people in our community to a high rise fire with a bunch of buildings that have no retrofitting and what do we do to try to get more of these buildings in compliance so we can save lives?”

The measure has stalled in committee for three months as the Residential Fire Safety Advisory Committee, a group created by the council, studied fire safety and introduced policy recommendations. Menor’s bill is based on the panel’s report.

While the measure exempts certain buildings from the sprinkler requirement, it mandates that all 358 older high rises pass a fire safety evaluation — a check list of fire safety features created by the advisory panel.

The committee also overwhelmingly supported deferring the measure to give condominium and apartment associations time to review the revised bill and submit testimony.

Opposition to the bill has come mostly from members of condominium and apartment associations who argued the installations were unnecessary or too expensive.

Councilwoman Carol Fukunaga was sympathetic to their concerns.

“We’re affecting people’s pocket books,” she said. “I don’t know why there’s this rush when the buildings themselves have been maintained and very aware of fire safety over the years.”

The Nuts And Bolts

Qualifying high rises would need to install sprinklers in common areas, including hallways, lobbies, and shared laundry rooms, sooner than the 12-year deadline to install sprinklers in every unit.

The new proposal would give buildings with 20 or more stories eight years to install sprinklers in common areas. Buildings with 10 to 19 stories would have 10 years to do so.

“The taller the building is, the tougher” to fight fires, said Socrates Bratakos, an assistant fire chief and member of the advisory panel.

Buildings exempt from the sprinklers requirement aren’t entirely off the hook.

Bill 69 would require buildings with more than 10 stories, like this 12-story condominium project in Makiki, to be retrofitted with fire sprinklers. Natanya Friedheim/Civil Beat

The new version of the bill would require all 358 high rises to pass a fire safety evaluation by a licensed architect or engineer within three years of the bill passing.

The advisory panel based the evaluation on the National Fire Protection Association Life Safety Code and the International Building Code. Buildings earn or lose points based on fire safety features. 

Smoke detectors, alarm systems and concrete walls would earn a building more points. A broken alarm system or drywall between units would earn fewer.

The evaluation also would include the number of people living in a building who are capable of exiting quickly as opposed to the number who are disabled or elderly and would thus be more vulnerable in a fire.

Even if they’re exempt from the sprinkler requirement, buildings deemed unsafe after the evaluation would be required to add safety measures, like alarm systems, smoke detectors or sprinklers. All buildings would need a passing score on the evaluation within three years of failing the evaluation.

Fire Safety Incentives

The advisory panel’s report estimates installing sprinklers in the Marco Polo condo would cost about $4,300 per unit and retrofitting other buildings would cost as much as $13,400 per unit, Hawaii News Now reported.

Robert Reed, a retiree who has lived in a high rise near Kahala Mall for 41 years, was one of a number of people who argued the bill would cause an unnecessary financial burden for renters and condo owners.

“Bill 69 would create an extreme — and I mean extreme — financial hardship for my family if passed,” Reed said.

“It’s just a lot of inconvenience,”  he said. “And I don’t really see the need for it.”

Menor introduced measures that offer financial incentives to retrofit buildings. He crafted his measures based on recommendations by the advisory panel.

They include:

  • Bill 103 – Creates a fund to offers loans to people at 80 percent or less of area median income who can’t secure funds from other sources for retrofitting. An individual making $58,000 or less in Honolulu would qualify, according to the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development’s income limits.
  • Bill 102 – Waives permitting fees for city permits required to install sprinkler systems in residential high rises. 
  • Bill 101 – Offers property tax breaks to home owners in the year immediately after retrofitting the building.
  • Resolution 17-316 – Urges the city Board of Water Supply to waive fees associated with installing water meters for high rises adding sprinkler systems.
  • Resolution 17-317  – Urging the Legislature to offer income tax benefits to those who follow the city’s requirement to install sprinklers.

Caldwell said his administration is drafting its own measures that offer financial incentives.

He also pointed out that any new buildings constructed after 1975 have paid for the installation of sprinkler systems without financial incentives.

“People are paying for those sprinklers without any incentives. These are expensive high rises, these are middle income and they’re ones that are very affordable,” Caldwell said. “So I think there’s a matter of fairness and equity.”

About the Author