After years of debate, counties in Hawaii may be allowed to require the installation of residential fire sprinklers in all new single-family homes and duplexes.

A measure being considered by the Legislature would reverse a ban that was implemented in 2012 amid a tug of war between fire departments who argue that sprinklers save lives and the construction industry that says sprinklers affect housing affordability and may cause water damage.

The issue came to the fore in 2017 when a fire erupted at the 36-story Marco Polo apartment building in Honolulu, killing four people. The tragedy prompted a law to be passed the next year requiring older buildings over 10 stories tall to install automatic sprinkler systems and implement other safety measures.

Hawaii counties were initially prohibited from requiring one or two family homes to install sprinklers in 2012, but the act was due to be repealed at the end of June 2017. Instead, lawmakers voted to extend the ban for a decade.

The State Fire Council is pushing for a measure that would overturn the current law – known as Act 53 – which prohibits counties from adopting codes and regulations that require new one-or-two-family dwellings to include sprinklers.

“The sprinkler system will save lives and last as long as the house,” said Gary Lum, administrative specialist at the fire council.

High-rise residential complexes are required to install fire sprinklers following the Marco Polo fire in 2017. A bill moving through the Legislature would repeal a ban that keeps counties from mandating fire sprinklers in single-family homes. Anthony Quintano/Civil Beat/2017

Since 2008, the International Residential Code has recommended that new single family homes and duplexes add fire sprinklers. So far California and Maryland require sprinklers in such homes, according to the State Fire Council’s testimony. Eighteen states do not have a statewide mandate and 26 states prohibit fire sprinklers through legislation or a code. 

Hawaii’s State Fire Council wants to leave it up to the counties to decide whether they want to mandate fire sprinklers, although it’s unclear whether they will if the bill becomes law. Homeowners may choose to install fire sprinklers if they wish.

When asked if the City and County of Honolulu would consider introducing a measure that would require single-family homes to install fire sprinklers, Councilmember Carol Fukunaga said there’s currently no such proposal before the council.

Senate Bill 448 passed the full Senate on Feb. 7 with a 24-1 vote. The bill was sent to the House for further consideration. Sen. Kurt Fevella voted nay because of what it may cost homeowners to include fire sprinklers.

Installing fire sprinklers may cost $10,000 to $15,000 for a typical three-bedroom, two-bath home that’s 1,800 to 2,000 square feet, according to an analysis by the State Fire Council. 

‘One Size Does Not fit All’

The debate over fire sprinklers – especially for residential homes as opposed to high-rises – is complicated, with strong believers on both sides.  

Supporters say sprinklers will help reduce further damage to a home and fatalities.

Between 2006 to 2019, the City and County of Honolulu reported 42 fire fatalities. Forty-one homes that burned didn’t have fire sprinklers and one home did. 

The Honolulu Fire Department also recorded 219 injuries – 207 injuries in homes without sprinklers with 12 people injured in homes that had sprinklers installed. The council estimated that homes with no sprinklers suffered more than $332 million in damages versus more than $21 million for those with sprinklers.

On the other hand, opponents worry about the cost of installation and potential water damage from malfunctioning sprinklers.

The Building Industry Association, an advocacy group for the building industry, opposed SB 448, stating in testimony that it’s “not anti-sprinkler but pro-affordable housing, and pro-consumer choice.” 

“We believe in fire sprinklers,” said BIA President Daryl Takamiya. “We are against the mandates because one size does not fit all.”

Takamiya said the cost of sprinkler mandates may discourage home buyers from purchasing a house, given the median price for a home on Oahu rose above $1 million last year. 

Hibiscus Drive resident Russel Freeman stands fronting his newly built house.
Diamond Head resident Russel Freeman stands in front of his newly built house on Hibiscus Drive. Cory Lum/Civil Beat/2022

Would Fire Sprinklers Help?

Some Hawaii residents questioned whether sprinklers will be effective in an actual fire. 

Diamond Head resident Russel Freeman’s home burned down in January 2020. His house was one of several that were destroyed in the neighborhood after a fire was started by his next-door neighbor, who killed his landlord and two Honolulu police officers. 

Freeman moved back in his newly rebuilt house in December. Though he said he understands the safety concerns, he doesn’t believe fire sprinklers would have helped in his case. 

“This fire would’ve completely overwhelmed the fire sprinklers,” he said. “To be honest, he (Freeman’s neighbor) had it all set to go and once the fire was off, all of the houses were like matchsticks.”

In January 2020, several houses burned down on Hibiscus Drive. Cory Lum/Civil Beat/2020

Freeman said that more common fires such as accidental kitchen fires probably wouldn’t completely destroy the house even without sprinklers. 

He said he’s more concerned about the water damage that a sprinkler could cause. And he’s satisfied with his smoke alarms. 

Waipahu resident Nicole Aguinadlo’s house was engulfed in flames last year. She said a sprinkler system wouldn’t have helped given that most Waipahu homes are older and made of wood.

She said the fire started outside near her garage and worked its way into the two-story, multifamily house in less than a minute.

“I was in my room and I heard screaming from my landlord,” Aguinaldo said. “When I went into the kitchen, I noticed smoke was coming into the kitchen window already.”

Last year, Nicole Anguinaldo's Waipahu house burned down. Now Aguinaldo and her family live in another house.
Last year, Nicole Anguinaldo’s Waipahu home on Kahuawai Street burned down. Now Aguinaldo and her family live in another house. Courtesy: Nicole Aguinaldo/2021

Aguinaldo, who shared the home with nine other people, said her family has since moved to another house with installed smoke detectors in every room. 

“I think if we lived in a modern house that has good plumbing and good structure, and if the fire happened inside I think sprinklers would have helped,” she said.

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