More than 281 high-rise residential buildings in Honolulu have failed to pass a safety evaluation required by the city and are at greater risk from fire than new buildings, according to an analysis provided by the Honolulu Fire Department to the City Council this month.

Only 21 of the buildings that were studied have an “acceptable” life safety score, according to fire department officials.

Tens of thousands of Honolulu residents live in these problematic buildings.

None of the 302 buildings that were evaluated have water sprinklers, which have been customary in new high-rise office buildings on the mainland for almost a century. In Hawaii, fire sprinklers have only been required in high-rise buildings since 1975 but much of the housing stock was built before then and was grandfathered in under the old rules.

Fire and smoke pour out of the Marco Polo apartment building in 2017. Anthony Quintano/Civil Beat/2017

While fire alarms alert people to danger and other fire-retardant construction systems help contain a blaze once it gets established, fire sprinklers are universally recognized as the best way to save lives, particularly in buildings that are too high for people to jump out the windows and survive.

“Fire sprinklers are the only thing that attacks the hazard itself,” said Honolulu Fire Department Acting Battalion Chief Kendall Ching.

In a recent interview, he demonstrated the difference by showing a video that showed what happened in fires in two identical rooms, one with sprinklers and one without.

The reviews, which are called Life Safety Evaluations, were performed on each building by fire engineering and construction experts, at the expense of the property owners, who were required to do so by the City Council if they did not install sprinklers.

The buildings surveyed in Honolulu have other deficiencies in addition to their lack of sprinklers.

The reviews found that many buildings lack adequate means of egress in case of fire, that passages to the outside were blocked, that doors didn’t close properly to isolate smoke and fire or that the buildings feature air shafts that would allow flames to billow between floors or shoot up staircases.

“Non-sprinklered buildings with deficient ways of egress would be cause for considerable concern,” said Gregory Harrington, principal engineer for the National Fire Protection Association. He said that multiple shortcomings “make a bad situation worse.”

Harrington said that in those cases, aging residents with mobility problems could find it difficult to escape in time and firefighters might not be able to reach them quickly enough to prevent injury or death.

The NFPA is expected to press for universal fire sprinkler systems in residential units, without opt-outs for additional safety measures, when the organization next updates its Life Safety Code in 2024.

The Honolulu Surveys

The 302 buildings in Honolulu were evaluated on five criteria, including egress routes, elevators, standpipe systems, vertical openings and resident’s mobility status. “Vertical openings” refers to ways fire could climb inside a building, such as through an open atrium, and “standpipes” are the separate water system where firefighters can attach hoses without having to drag them up from the ground floor.

Huge clouds of smoke billowed out the sides of the Marco Polo building as firefighters fought the blaze. Anthony Quintano/Civil Beat

The buildings most at risk were those erected in the 1950s, ’60s and ’70s, during the building boom that accompanied statehood. Fewer than one-quarter of all condos on Oahu were built after that time and constructed under the newer fire codes, many with fire sprinklers.

“The buildings are old, old,” and even their fire alarms systems are “ancient,” said Sue Savio, owner of Insurance Associates, which provides condominium building insurance.

The buildings met fire code at the time they were built but technology and fire-prevention systems have been modernized since then and it is difficult to bring older structures “up to snuff,” she said.

Compounding the danger, according to Ching, is that modern furnishings are making fire much more combustible. Homes equipped with old-style furnishings — wooden chairs and bedsteads, for example, with cotton fabrics — hit “flashpoint,” or explosive fire ignition, in about 28 minutes. But modern furniture  — frequently made of plastic with synthetic fabrics — hits flashpoint in 3 and 1/2 minutes, Ching said.

That’s too quickly for firefighters to arrive and put out the flames, and in many cases, for occupants to escape with their lives, Ching said.

A You Tube video provided by Ching dramatically illustrates how this happens.

The city only evaluated buildings that were 75 feet tall or higher, which is the height firefighters can reach with ladders. Shorter buildings were excluded from the survey.

Momentum for tougher fire-safety regulation came in the wake of the Marco Polo fire in 2017, in which four people died.

The information about the extent of the hazard was discussed in a briefing in October for the City Council’s public infrastructure and technology committee, with a full list of the risky buildings provided quietly to the council after the hearing. A subsequent report was released on Nov. 1.

More than three dozen people died in fires in Honolulu between 2006 and 2019, according to Steven Goble, former vice chair of the Hawaii State Fire Council, in testimony to the Legislature in March. Only one person died in a building with fire sprinklers and 41 died in buildings that did not have them, he reported.

In addition to the deaths at the Marco Polo, other recent fatalities included a 49-year-old man, Alvin Asakura, who died in Makiki in 2018 and an 83-year-old man from Moiliili, Roy Mogi, who died the next year.  None of the three buildings had fire sprinklers at the time.

Many more people have been injured in recent decades, either by fire or smoke inhalation. Goble reported that 207 people suffered injuries in Honolulu fires in buildings without sprinklers while 12 got hurt in buildings with sprinklers in that same 13-year period.

Firefighters are also placed at risk from fires when they scramble to save people’s lives and property. In 2021, 81 city workers were injured by fires and so far this year, 60 have been hurt in structure fires, according to the fire department.

Standards Slow To Be Upgraded

Typically fire standards are tightened only after a tragedy. The Triangle shirtwaist fire in Manhattan in 1911, where thousands of horrified New Yorkers watched workers leap from the windows to escape the flames, resulted in a broad updating of rules and installation of fire sprinklers in high-rise industrial buildings.

A young social worker, Frances Perkins, who witnessed the fire and who later became U.S. Secretary of Labor, drafted the fire-safety legislation and unveiled the initiative to the National Fire Protection Association in 1913.

The MGM Grand fire in Las Vegas in 1980, which resulted in 85 deaths, led Honolulu officials to require hotels on Oahu to be retrofitted with automatic sprinkler systems in 1983.

The First Interstate building fire in 2000, which injured 11 firefighters, caused the city to pass an ordinance in 2001 requiring fire sprinklers in commercial high-rise buildings.

“The fire code was written in blood,” Ching said.

But it has been a different story in residential towers. For more than two decades, city officials in Honolulu have been trying to push apartment and condominium building owners to install fire sprinklers. Many building owners have been reluctant to do it because of the cost.

A fire committee established in 2004 examined the issue and recommended the installation of fire sprinklers. In 2005, the cost was estimated at $2.4 million for the Marco Polo and $1.5 million for Royal Court, according to fire department records.

Neither building put in sprinklers at the time.

In 2018, after the Marco Polo fire, the city passed Ordinance 18-14, which required sprinklers in residential high-rise buildings or, later, allowed them to opt out by performing the Life Safety Evaluations and achieving a passing score.

Since then, some buildings have installed fire sprinklers but most sought the evaluations instead and hope to make an adequate level of fixes.

Three-quarters of Oahu’s condos were built before fire sprinklers became mandatory in high-rise buildings and very few older buildings have them. Cory Lum/Civil Beat/2016

City officials have repeatedly delayed deadlines for compliance.

Building industry officials and the Hawaii Council of Association of Apartment Owners have successfully resisted pressure to take immediate action, saying it would add to the cost of housing or impose intolerable burdens on residents.

Not everybody agreed that sprinklers were needed. Bobby Lee, president of Hawaii Fire Fighters Association Local 1463, said that officials used the Marco Polo fire as a “scare tactic” to try to force building owners to put in sprinklers.

He said he is sympathetic to the plight of residents who can’t afford the cost.

“We’re talking about local people on fixed incomes, barely making it, and here they would have a $15,000 bill to pay for it,” he said. “If the city wants everybody to have sprinklers, they should pay for it.”

A New Problem: Getting Insurance

Since then, amid the long deferral, costs have gotten even higher. When the Marco Polo finally installed its system after the 2017 fire, it cost the complex $5 million.

Another property that is installing one now, 250 Ohua, is replacing its aging pipes at a cost of $4.7 million and will get the fire sprinklers installed for another $800,000, Savio said. The building moved quickly and saved money.

That’s because the expense is now being compounded for the buildings that stalled. The ones considering it this year are faced with climbing interest rates, which costs condominium associations and property owners more to borrow money, higher labor costs and supply chain issues, which make it difficult to get the equipment needed to make the renovations.

And now, in addition, the cost of insurance is shooting up for these buildings, causing additional financial problems for residents who live in the city’s high rises. Insurers were forced to pay out $100 million in insurance claims at the Marco Polo, city officials were told, and they will no longer insure buildings they consider dangerous. Buildings without water sprinklers are viewed as risky to insure.

Savio told city officials that insurance rates are rising nationwide because liability claims — including more than $1 billion for the tower that collapsed in Florida — have risen.

Buildings without fire sprinklers can expect to pay more, she said.

Moreover, some buildings’ risk profile, according to their Life Safety Evaluations, appear particularly problematic. Several of the structures on the city’s list have been given the lowest possible safety ratings in three categories or more, a review of the city analysis reveals.

Two of the buildings where residents were killed in fires — the Oahuan Tower and Rainbow Place — have never installed fire sprinklers, and their evaluations indicate the buildings’ level of safety is not “acceptable,” based on the recent study.

Academy Tower, located at 1425 Ward Ave., and Big Surf, at 1690 Ala Moana Blvd., had the lowest possible ratings in three areas — egress routes, elevators and vertical openings. At both buildings, owners are making significant improvements they hope the city will find acceptable.

Academy Tower’s Association President Paul Cox said the building is installing a new state of the art fire alarm system that he believes is a “safe alternative,” at considerable expense, given that putting in sprinklers would be financially prohibitive.

“Nobody’s association reserves could accommodate the cost of retrofitting the building with a sprinkler system without billing the individual property owners for a significant amount of money,” he said.

Lloyd Lim, president of the Big Surf condominium association, said that his board was flummoxed by the cost and that even getting the building inspected and evaluated was difficult during the coronavirus pandemic, adding to the complexity of the situation.

Lim does not think the City Council thought the process through properly before imposing difficult requirements on building owners.

“They jerked into it in knee-jerk fashion,” he said. “There was hardly any detail on what they were requiring. It was an awkward and unhappy process for a lot of people.”

The City Council voted unanimously last month to take time to further investigate the situation and find ways to help homeowners afford to make the fixes, given the recent increase in costs.

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