Lawmakers promise requirement, payment plans for sprinklers in old residential high-rises

Lawmakers on the state and county level, as well as Honolulu Mayor Kirk Caldwell, want to make sure a deadly high-rise fire, like the one that broke out Friday in the Marco Polo building, doesn’t happen again.

On Monday, Caldwell introduced a bill that would require retrofitted sprinkler systems to be installed in all high-rise residential buildings over 75 feet tall built before sprinkler systems were required in 1975.

“Sprinklers save lives, and our keiki and kupuna need them most,” said Caldwell. “We know the Marco Polo fire would likely not have spread if the building had sprinklers. We also know that many Oahu families struggle to pay for affordable housing, and we are working with the City Council to find ways to help homeowners pay for this lifesaving upgrade.”

Details, such as the timeline, assistance programs for homeowners, and penalties for non-compliance will be added during City Council deliberations.

In 1975, the City and County of Honolulu enacted a law requiring sprinkler systems in all newly constructed high-rise buildings, but not to existing buildings.

In 1983, Honolulu required all existing hotel high-rise buildings retrofit an automatic fire sprinkler system. In 2001, the requirement was extended to all existing commercial high-rise buildings.

The requirement has not been extended to existing high-rise residential buildings.

Past proposals have failed due to the cost, which could amount to several thousand dollars per unit. So what can be done to make it more affordable?

Lawmakers are looking at tax breaks, installment plans, and low-interest loans, particularly for retirees who are on fixed incomes.

“(There would be) a package for those on fixed income, low income, so that they don’t have to move out because they can’t afford to stay there,” said city councilwoman Ann Kobayashi.

Kobayashi says she and other council members are on board to help low income and fixed income residents by working out some arrangement with sprinkler companies to allow installment payments.

“The city has a no-interest or low-interest loan program for those who are low income, so maybe we can work things out through that fund,” Kobayashi said.

Kobayashi says she and fellow councilwoman Carol Fukunaga will meet with Honolulu Fire Department Chief Manuel Neves later this week to discuss a plan.

State Sen. Glenn Wakai also wants to make it more affordable by giving tax breaks, similar to those given to residents who installed solar panels in their homes. Although in this case, it might make more sense to apply the discount to condominium board associations.

“That might be another way of looking at it to give the associations the tax credit, because they are the ones that have to cobble together a majority of their tenants to put in their sprinkler system,” Wakai said.

Barbara Kim Stanton, director of AARP Hawaii, says the time has come to make it affordable, and all options should be considered.

“I think we should look at installment payments I think we should be looking at tax credits. I think we should be looking at how to subsidize, I think everything is on the table,” she said.

According to a survey conducted by the Honolulu Fire Department, there are approximately 300 high-rise apartment buildings on Oahu which currently do not have a fire sprinkler system.

Many are speaking out in support of new legislation.

The Honolulu Fire Department released the following statement: “For the purpose of providing for a safer community, the HFD advocates for fire prevention through public education and fire code enforcement. The HFD will continue to be a strong proponent of the installation of fire protection systems, including fire sprinklers, in all occupancies.”

The firefighters’ union says a sprinkler system can mean the difference between a fire that can be quickly put out and one that goes on for hours.

“Sprinklers are a wonderful fire safety tool,” said Bobby Lee, president of the Hawaii Fire Fighters Association. “For the most part, the vast majority of the time, they work. They stop the fire. They contain it to one room.”

There are many challenges to fighting a high-rise fire, including not being able to access the fire with hoses from the ground.

“The fire itself is very hot (in a) contained concrete building,” Lee said. “One of the other real challenges is that high-rise buildings, because of the containment and the height, you cannot access the fire from the outside, so you’ve got to go through the stairwells. You’ve got residents trying to come down, you’ve got firefighters trying to go up. It’s the logistics of a cramped working space, confined working space, and just the containment of heat alone that causes major issues.”

Associa Hawaii, the company that manages Marco Polo, says it plans to look at all issues, including sprinkler installation.

“It has been well reported that sprinkler systems are not currently required in buildings that were built in a certain day. That would include the Marco Polo building. I am confident that in light of this and other events around the country that that issue will be revisited,” said Andrew Fortin, senior vice president of external affairs for Associa Hawaii.

Honolulu’s Building Code currently requires all newly constructed multi-family apartment buildings be equipped with an automatic fire sprinkler system, even if they are not a high-rise building.

Retired fire captain Richard Soo knows all too well the importance of having a sprinkler system. Six years ago, his home was destroyed in a fire. His sons were home at the time.

“As (my son) came up the stairs to get out, the ceiling in the kitchen was already falling down,” Soo recalled. “I just want to let people know there is a different side to the cost of sprinklers. It’s needed. I mean how can you put a price on a life?”

Sprinklers are not required in single-family homes, but Soo installed one after that fire.

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