On August 4, an 81-year old woman died from injuries sustained in the July 14, 2017 at the Marco Polo Condominium in Honolulu. This retired librarian, the fourth fatality related to the fire, was rescued from her apartment on the 32nd floor suffering from severe smoke inhalation. The first three victims were found dead in their apartments directly across from the apartment of fire origin on the 26th floor of this 36-story tower.
On October 8, 2017, the Honolulu City Council is reconvening its Residential Fire Safety Advisory Committee (RFSAC). The purpose of the committee will be to prepare a report for the council with recommendations for addressing the fire safety of existing high-rise residential condominiums.
According to the Honolulu Fire Department, the fire damaged more than 200 of the building's 562 apartment units with an estimated direct fire loss of $107 million.
The HFD has not yet published its report of the fire investigation, but sources inside the HFD have indicated to the media that the fire was not intentionally set and did not involve cooking. During and immediately after the fire several local politicians rushed to the cameras and decried the tragedy and promised quick action on developing new requirements for the fire safety of the more than 300 existing high-rise condominiums in Honolulu, built before sprinkler systems were required by the building code.
Within a few days Mayor Kirk Caldwell, through City Council Chair Ron Menor, introduced Bill 69 to the Honolulu City Council. The bill passed first reading with a vote of 9-0 and has since been deferred to committee to await the report from the RFSAC.
Bill 69, as currently drafted, applies to existing residential condo buildings greater than 75 feet above lowest level of fire department vehicle access. Fire safety provisions include:
The compliance provisions of the bill are:
There are also provisions for justified extensions of the five-year date.
Though Mayor Caldwell has remained steadfast on the need for the significant fire safety improvements, certain key council persons have begun the slow slide away from what is turning out to be a hot button issue for many of their constituents.
Bill 69, rushed into action to take advantage of the strong desire immediately after the fire and will need a lot of work. The draft bill was basically a copy of the 2006 ordinance which required the retrofit of existing office high-rise buildings in Honolulu. This ordinance contained a provision to require the fire safety improvements be completed within five years. This was a very reasonable time for the office buildings, as the law affected less than 30 buildings, and many of these buildings were already in the process of retrofitting fire sprinkler systems.
Also, different about the current bill, and which was key to its success, is that it was strongly supported by BOMA Hawaii and individual office building owners.
Those familiar with the 2006 legislation and the workings of the RFSAC at that time will remember that the original bill also included existing high-rise condominiums.
However, after strong opposition from the individual condo owners and Hawaii Council of Apartment Owners, residential high-rises were removed from the ordinance.
This time around may be different. It appears the city council has painted themselves into a corner and is praying for the RFSAC to bail them out.
One can expect the RFSAC (on which I will be serving) to recommend several changes to the draft bill, which I believe, could help its passage.
First, the time to compliance will be extended to at least 12 years. Also, the law may contain time frames for compliance. The level of compliance will possibly be based on an indexing of the high-rise buildings using factors, such has, number of floors, presence of interior corridors or exit access balconies, number of existing standpipe risers, etc. I believe that some buildings are less safe than others, and this could factor into revised compliance levels and compliance timeframes. Also, we can expect cost-saving measures to be introduced. These include permission to use an NFPA 13R type system for buildings under a certain height. This also includes reduced fire pump requirements when existing manual standpipe risers are converted to combined systems to support sprinkler systems. And the elimination of sprinkler requirements from elevator hoistways and machine rooms.
There may also be cost-saving measures coming from the government, such as reduced fees for water connections, building permits, property tax breaks, etc. There is even consideration for some form of loan program to assist the buildings to provide sprinklers. Of course, I would not hold my breath, hoping for politicians to provide anything that reduces the city coffers. These give-backs may also run into objections from other taxpayers as being unfair to those not living in unsafe high-rises, in apartment units often worth many millions of dollars.
One interesting possibility is that a provision is being considered that would allow building owners/associations to opt out of sprinkler requirements, if a supermajority of the apartment owners so vote.
Initially, I thought I would oppose an opt-out measure, but after thinking about it, I feel that is makes sense and is only fair that the individual owners decide on the level of safety they want to pay for their homes. After all, “a man’s home is his castle.” And make no mistake, this will not be an inexpensive undertaking, with estimates in the range of $5,000 to $20,000 per apartment owner.
My chief concern with an opt-out provision is it does not address a major fire safety issue with high-rise buildings. That is the safety of the firefighter.
Certainly informed (and I do mean informed) apartment owners, in our great democracy, should be allowed to determine their level of safety. Just as certainly, they should realize that there must be a price to pay for the increased level of risk that their unsprinklered (and unsafe?) high-rise buildings pose to the first responder.
For this reason, I would like to see those buildings that opt out of sprinklers, still be required to comply with all the other fire safety improvements contained in the bill. I would also like to see these buildings be required to pay a fire tax premium. This would be a surcharge to their property taxes. The funds generated by this fire tax could be used by the fire department to support their high-rise fire safety efforts, to include, prevention and education programs, firefighter training, and for equipment and apparatus needs. The surcharge could also be used to help with loan programs.
Any fire department in the country could use this same model and should be easily able to show the difference in cost-related to fighting a fire in a non-sprinklered vs. sprinklered high-rise building.
Other measures have been proposed which on the surface have merit. Caveat Emptor!
For example, some are considering the Chicago model for dealing with existing high-rise condos. In the aftermath of the Cook County Office Building fire in October 2003 in which six people died, Chicago implemented fire safety legislation for existing high-rises. The Chicago law, while requiring sprinklers for existing high-rise office buildings, allowed residential high-rise buildings to undergo a fire safety evaluation by a professional engineer or architect. Using a checklist tied to an index like the fire safety evaluation surveys contained in NFPA 101, and related to the checklist in the International Existing Building Code, points could be accumulated by implementing various fire safety improvements. If the total points exceeded a certain threshold which represents “the minimum level of safety,” then fire safety and hence compliance was said to have been achieved.
The problem with the Chicago law, as I see it, it aside from making a lot of money for fire protection engineers, was that the point system was rigged. That is, it was very much watered-down (and not by sprinklers), being strongly biased against sprinklers. It is my understanding, that of the over 200 high-rise apartments that were evaluated, sprinkler protection was opted for in only five buildings. I think indexes can be useful if designed so that sprinkler protection “points” are indicative of its true measure of its value. And most of all, there should be no way that any point system can say that there is something equivalent to sprinkler protection.
Let us hope, that we in Honolulu come up with something better than the Chicago model. I will let you know how the meeting goes.