When a fire erupted in his high-rise condominium building, Roy Mogi, 83, evacuated down six flights of stairs and crossed safely to the other side of the street.

Then he collapsed, and his head slammed against the pavement. He died of blunt force trauma.

Honolulu Fire Capt. Scott Seguirant said it’s not known whether exhaustion played a role in Mogi’s collapse on April 20 outside of the Rainbow Place condo building in Moiliili.

“The question I would ask is, ‘Why did he fall?’” Seguirant said. “Did he pass out because he was exhausted from all those stairs he had to get down?”

Almost a third of Waikiki’s resident population is comprised of people 55 and older, and many of them live in high-rise buildings. A new consortium of nonprofits called Safe Kupuna is focusing its disaster preparedness education outreach on seniors who reside in Hawaii’s tourism hub. This event was held at the Waikiki Community Center. Ku'u Kauanoe/Civil Beat

An often overlooked part of disaster safety is knowing the limitations of people who may need to evacuate.

Seguirant encourages management of high-rise residential buildings to practice an annual evacuation drill so that residents can determine whether they can reliably climb down several flights of stairs in the event that an elevator stops working.

“We do know that being able to get out quickly improves your chances of survival,” he said. “The fire is never going to care if you are immobile and weak. But it depends on the circumstances whether you should evacuate if you think it would be difficult for you physically to get yourself out.”

High-rises can be difficult to evacuate, especially for older people and those with disabilities. During a fire or other emergency, elevators often shut down and evacuation becomes a serious challenge for anyone with shaky mobility.

In Waikiki, where people 55 years and older comprise about 30% of the resident population, high-rise condominiums are common.

In fact, Hawaii is one of the top states for condominium living, with 148,450 units dispersed across the islands in 2015. In 1990, 21 percent of all housing units in Hawaii were condominiums — the highest percentage in the nation.

“A lot of the buildings have plans but they don’t share them with the residents, which is bizarre to me. How is that going to help anyone?” — Denise Pierson, service learning coordinator, Kapiolani Community College

And while high-rise residential buildings must publicly post a fire evacuation plan, they are not legally required to develop response plans for other emergencies, such as hurricanes, tsunamis or earthquakes.

These are not one-size-fits-all scenarios. For example, an incoming tsunami would generally prompt residents on the first few floors only to evacuate to a higher level of the building, while a fire might force a building-wide evacuation. Proper protocol during a hurricane warning, on the other hand, typically has residents hunkering down in place.

Now a grassroots movement is encouraging Hawaii seniors who live in high-rises to develop personal emergency response plans — and encourage their residential managers to do the same for the entire building.

“After the false ballistic missile alert last year I inquired with our members: ‘What did you do? Were you prepared?’” said Merle O’Neill, program director at the Waikiki Community Center. “And basically they said they were frightened and didn’t know what to do.”

“We also found out that the Marco Polo fire also activated a lot of fear,” O’Neill said. “So we are arming our seniors with what they need to face that fear.”

An upper-story fire killed four people and caused more than $100 million in damage at the Marco Polo condominium high-rise in July 2017. No cause was ever determined for the seven-alarm fire that sparked numerous lawsuits and a broader debate about whether older high-rises should be retrofitted with sprinkler systems. 

Condo High-Rises Hard To Access

Supported by a consortium of nonprofits, the Safe Kupuna program has hosted more than a dozen emergency disaster preparedness workshops in recent weeks tailored to seniors living in high-rises. The workshops were held at the Waikiki Community Center and some low-income senior housing buildings. 

Seniors who attend these meetings learn how to script their own emergency disaster plan. They also receive a disaster preparedness kit filled with dozens of items, including bandages, batteries, hot and cold packs and an inflatable water bottle.

Attendees who live in high-rises are also strongly encouraged to coax their resident manager into scripting an emergency disaster plan specific to the building.

Safe Kupuna program leaders are encouraging high-rise condo and apartment managers to collect the names of potentially vulnerable residents so that they can be more closely monitored during emergencies. Ku'u Kauanoe/Civil Beat

“The building needs to have a plan that everyone knows,” said Denise Pierson, service learning coordinator at Kapiolani Community College. “A lot of the buildings have plans but they don’t share them with the residents, which is bizarre to me. How is that going to help anyone? And then there are a lot of buildings that don’t have plans at all.”

Gaining access to condos and identifying resident managers or management companies has been difficult, O’Neill said. 

“Access to the condo for us is impossible without permission,” O’Neill said. “And gaining permission sometimes seems impossible. Management associations do not want to release who the managers are or even the name of the management company. And generally the guy at the front desk is not the guy to talk to, and he won’t tell you who the HOA president is.”

The group is slowly assembling a database of names and contact information for resident managers at Waikiki condos so it can monitor which buildings have emergency response plans and which still need to be coaxed to follow suit.

It is also attempting to pair seniors who have mobility issues with a buddy on their floor or elsewhere in the building who can offer assistance during an evacuation. But the effort to collect the names of potentially vulnerable seniors has been largely hampered by privacy issues, O’Neill said.

A Building With A Plan

Ralph Shumway, residential manager of the 38-floor Waipuna condominium building in Waikiki, said he has a 30-page booklet for first responders that documents the building’s customized response plans for several kinds of disasters. The plan is printed in big white binders and stashed near various fire alarms throughout the building for easy access by first responders.

The binders include a confidential list of people who would likely need help during a disaster; for example, residents who cannot descend 38 flights of stairs in the event that the elevator shuts down. Shumway said he edits the list every few months to account for new residents and those who have gone.

“You don’t want a horribly flawed plan but even if it’s flawed, it’s always better to have a plan that isn’t perfect if for no other reason than to save your butt from liability,” Shumway said.

Information passed out to participants in a disaster preparedness event at the Waikiki Community Center. Ku'u Kauanoe/Civil Beat

Shumway also keeps a resident-accessible floor plan with emergency evacuation routes near the elevator on each floor of the building. There are disaster preparedness and fire safety brochures in common areas, such as the mail room. And Shumway said he reminds residents to stock up on essentials like canned foods and water before the start of every hurricane season.

In the past, Shumway said he has directed residents of the building’s six bottom floors to evacuate to the seventh floor recreation deck during tsunami warnings. On some occasions, residents have slept there until the threat subsided, he said.

“I evacuated everyone but myself up there while I stayed at ground zero,” Shumway said. “I had spotters up on the roof with radio communication so they can let me know if I need to run for my life. We take it seriously because we know it’s a matter of when, not if, a disaster strikes.”

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