Amid a terse political debate about fire safety in Honolulu, managers in at least 10 older high-rise buildings in the city are pushing ahead to install fire sprinklers for the first time, according to city records and interviews with condominium associations.

Most building owners in Honolulu are trying to find ways around city safety laws imposed in 2018 that prioritized fire sprinklers. About 93% — 281 buildings of 302 that are 75 feet or taller — have failed a city-mandated safety evaluation but are resisting sprinkler installations as too costly.

But a growing number have decided to take on the expense because they want to protect their residents in case of fire.

The Holiday Manor complex at 1650 Kanunu St. has begun the process to install sprinkler heads throughout its structure. David Croxford/Civil Beat/2022

“Fire sprinklers put out the fire,” said Keith Chan, president of the board at the 17-story Kapiolani Bel-Aire on Kaheka Street built in 1969. “Nothing works like fire sprinklers.”

“We think we owe it to our residents to save their lives,” said Wallace Carvalho, president of the board at Holiday Manor, a 14-story tower built in 1966.

“At the end of the day, sprinklers save lives and put out fires,” said Derrick Tokumoto, building manager at 999 Wilder Ave., a 17-story structure.

Fire safety engineer Jordan Holley, fire sprinkler division manager with Dorvin D. Leis, a company that retrofits sprinklers, said more building owners are considering it now because insurance costs are rising for buildings that don’t have sprinklers.

“It’s gaining traction again,” he said.

These three structures, all built before fire sprinklers became mandatory in new high rises, would be among the first to retrofit their buildings to install fire sprinklers.

The impetus for the change was the deadly fire that struck the Marco Polo in 2017, killing four people and injuring scores more. The 572-unit Marco Polo Condominiums in Waikiki completed its fire sprinkler installation last year at a cost of $6 million.

Other buildings that have told city officials or insurers that they plan to install sprinklers include the two H&M Apartments on Date Street, Lehua Manor on Ala Ilima, Pumehana Apartments on Kinau Street, the Royal Vista on Prospect Street and 250 Ohua in Waikiki.

Building owners contacted by Civil Beat said the work was costing between $1 million and $6 million, depending on the building’s complexity and size.

In Hawaii, fire sprinklers have been required in new high-rise buildings since 1975 but many high-rise towers in the city were built before then and were grandfathered in under old rules.

Fire and smoke pour out of the Marco Polo apartment building in 2017. The deadly fire shocked survivors, Honolulu residents and city officials. Anthony Quintano/Civil Beat/2017

City officials passed legislation requiring buildings to install sprinklers or opt out by undergoing a Life Safety Evaluation and making necessary renovations, such as adding new fire alarms systems and creating structural barriers to contain smoke and fire.

But in Honolulu, most building owners have balked at installing sprinklers, deciding instead to make renovations that allow more people to escape from a blaze rather than put out the fire.

‘Dovetailing’ With Other Improvements

Many building owners have instead criticized city officials for pressing them on fire sprinklers. Some of the building owners most vociferous against the standards are those that have failed to pass their evaluations. Consequently, city officials have repeatedly delayed implementation of the requirements.

“People are mad because somebody is forcing them to do something,” said Holley, who said he is asked to evaluate buildings for sprinklers about once a month.

Some buildings can make the changes relatively cheaply by using their existing standpipe system, a separate water system to which firefighters can attach hoses without having to drag them up from the ground floor, he said. Even so, building owners don’t want to do it.

“It usually just goes to deaf ears and ends up being a waste of my time,” Holley said, adding that the issue often becomes mired in condominium board in-fighting.

Some building managers, however, are taking another tack.

Chan, from the condo board at Kapiolani Bel-Aire, said he and his fellow board members began considering the issue carefully last year, particularly after reading an article in a building industry magazine that weighed the benefits and costs.

“It got us thinking about the choices, other than opting out,” he said. “Opting out is the go-to for most associations.”

They learned they could “dovetail” installing the fire sprinklers with other necessary improvements and likely save money, said Chan, who is also an engineer and president of Notkin Hawaii Inc., a mechanical engineering and plumbing company that specializes in high rises.

“We were planning to re-do our plumbing in 10 years anyway,” he said.

Chan said his board also reasoned that it would cost more later.

“You could do all this work to avoid fire sprinklers and then there’s another fire or they order changes and pretty soon you need to put in fire sprinklers anyway,” he said.

Dorothy Mason, formerly the president of 999 Wilder, said that the decision to install sprinklers came out of board discussions several years ago, when they decided to create a three-member fire safety committee to investigate the options for making their 56-year-old building safer.

“We learned a lot,” about the risks of fire in high rises, she said, adding that in the end, the board voted unanimously last year to install sprinklers.

“It’ll be expensive but everybody agreed it would be the best thing to do,” she said.

Tokumoto, the building’s resident manager, said the decision was made easier after the building got its city safety evaluation and learned it would cost $6 million to $7 million to make the necessary modifications.

“We failed miserably,” he said. “It would cost more to make major modifications needed to correct the problems and pass without installing sprinklers.”

He said as soon as the building’s owners made their decision, they began beefing up their financial reserves to pay for the new sprinkler system.

Condo owners at Holiday Manor also found it was cheaper to go with a fire sprinkler system, Carvalho said, getting what he called “a great price.”

The building plans have been submitted to the city, he said, and they are almost ready to go. They think they have moved forward in the nick of time.

“Insurance costs have risen drastically,” he said. “We hope this will drastically reduce our insurance costs.”

Marco Polo resident Brigida Schmidt surveyed the damage from her apartment in July 2017. Owners easily voted for fire sprinklers after the fire. Anthony Quintano/Civil Beat/2017

Nars Domingo, general manager of the Marco Polo said that he gets three to five calls a week from condominium owners and managers, asking for advice about how and whether to install fire sprinklers.

“Their biggest issue is financial,” he said. “But how much is a life worth? It’s not something you can put a dollar figure on — it boggles my mind now that people don’t do it.”

That’s because the loss at the Marco Polo was so great, both in lives lost and people injured, with about 300 homes damaged or destroyed, he said.

“When you go through something like that, fire safety, life safety becomes more important than it was,” he said. “You think you know how horrifying it would be. It’s ten times worse.”

Scarred by the memory of the terrifying events, building residents were unanimous in wanting sprinklers installed. They voted for it “in record time,” Domingo said.

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