According to Wikipedia, Honolulu ranks fourth in the U.S. (64th in the world) of most high-rise buildings, which are defined as buildings at least 115 feet tall. Ahead of Honolulu are New York, Chicago and Los Angeles.
The Honolulu Fire Department has identified about 360 residential high-rise buildings on Oahu that are not provided with automatic sprinklers.
Within a few days of the July 14, 2017 Marco Polo Fire, Honolulu’s Mayor Kirk Caldwell introduced Bill 69 to the Honolulu City Council, proposing fire safety measures for existing residential buildings greater than 75 feet above lowest level of fire department vehicle access. Fire safety provisions in the bill include sprinklers, smoke detection in certain areas, fire alarm audibility, minimum requirements for corridor doors, stairwell re-entry provisions, emergency power for fire safety systems, and an emergency plan, posted exit placards, and semi-annual fire drills.
This bill requires full compliance within five years with some allowances for extensions.
However, Bill 69 — rushed into the council immediately after the fire — will need a lot of fixing. The fixing will be done by the Residential Fire Safety Advisory Committee (RFSAC), a task force appointed by the City Council, shortly after Bill 69 was introduced.
The purpose of the committee is to provide the city council with recommendations for addressing the fire safety of existing high-rise residential condominiums to be incorporated into the bill. Represented on the RFSAC is the HFD Fire Prevention Bureau, Honolulu Department of Planning and Permitting (our building department), the Honolulu AIA, the Hawaii Chapter of the SFPE, insurance, residential condominium associations, Hawaii Building Industry Association and the local firefighters union.
Having failed in their attempt to get a high-rise residential sprinkler retrofit ordinance enacted in 2005, the HFD and returning members of the RFSAC are taking the less heavy-handed approach that not all high-rise residential buildings are the same from a fire safety perspective.
The RFSAC recommendations will include a two-step process for determining fire safety provisions that will be applied to each building.
First, of the total number of unsprinklered high-rise residential buildings, high-risk buildings will be identified and required to retrofit sprinklers. Remaining high-rise buildings would not necessarily be required to be provided with automatic sprinklers.
The second step is that all buildings will need to undergo a fire safety evaluation through the use of the Fire and Life Safety Evaluation System. The system being developed specifically for Honolulu would be similar to the risk-index points-based systems found in NFPA 101A Guide on Alternative Approaches to Life Safety or in Chapter 14: Performance Compliance Methods of the International Existing Building Code, 2012 edition.
This evaluation will allow building and apartment owners an opportunity to determine which fire safety improvements their buildings would provide.
An important goal of the RFSAC was, in addition to the emphasis on the life safety of the residents, to make sure that firefighter safety was given strong consideration.
The RFSAC has determined that a key factor affecting the life safety in high-rise condominiums is whether or not the building means of egress includes interior corridors.
Nearly half of the 360 unsprinklered high-rise buildings in Honolulu have interior corridors. The others have, rather than interior corridors, Exterior Egress Balconies (to use the IBC term) also known as Exterior Ways of Exit Access (to use the NFPA 101).
So, high-risk buildings will be those high-rise buildings that are greater than a certain number of floors (say 10 or 20 or more floors) and that have interior corridors. These buildings will require the retrofit installation of automatic fire sprinklers.
The buildings mandated to be sprinklered would have eight or more years to comply.
High-rise buildings less than this number of stories that have interior corridors and high-rise buildings with no interior corridors relying on exterior egress balconies, will not be required to retrofit sprinkler systems.
Next, all of these buildings will be required to undergo the Fire and Life Safety Evaluation System to determine what fire safety improvements will be needed.
The FLSES will assess different fire safety features, assigning points to reflect the level of safety of different options within that feature. The 16 fire safety features are:
• Interior Finish
(Corridors and Exits)
• Corridor & Dwelling Separations
• Doors to Corridor
• Exit Access, Dead Ends/
• Vertical Openings
• Hazardous Areas
• Smoke Management
• Egress Routes
• Fire Alarm System
• Smoke Detection
• Automatic Sprinklers
• Smoke Alarms
• Standpipe System
• Emergency Lighting
The points received for each feature are then allocated across five fire safety categories:
a. Compartmentation Fire Safety
b. Extinguishment Fire Safety
c. Egress Fire
d. General Occupant Safety
e. Fire Fighter Safety
Each value for each category calculated for the building is then compared to the required value for that category; and if it is greater than or equal to that value, the building is deemed to have achieved an acceptable level of life safety for that category. Acceptable levels must be achieved in all five categories for the building to meet minimum fire safety requirements.
Those buildings that have some measure of noncompliance can use the evaluation system to determine what improvements are needed to achieve compliance.
This approach, while mandating sprinklers for the highest-risk buildings, affords most building and apartment owners some level of choice in determining how they meet fire safety requirements. It also makes it clear to the public that firefighter safety is being addressed in these existing high-rises.
Future columns will track the progress of this bill.