Honolulu City Council members Tuesday signaled they may be backing away from requiring more than 350 older residential buildings on Oahu to be retrofitted with sprinkler systems within five years.
The Council Executive Matters and Legal Affairs Committee voted to defer action on Bill 69, introduced on behalf of Mayor Kirk Caldwell last month in the days following the Marco Polo condominium fire that left three dead and damaged about a third of the building’s 568 units.
Council Chairman Ron Menor, who also heads the committee, told the Honolulu Star-Advertiser after the meeting that members are not abandoning the idea of passing the sprinkler bill, but want to get more information.
Honolulu Fire Chief Manuel Neves said he expects to have an updated draft report on changes to the city Fire Code from the Fire Safety Advisory Committee within the next month, Menor said. Additionally, he said, Council members Carol Fukunaga, Ann Kobayashi and Trevor Ozawa intend to hold a community meeting in the next month to hear from condominium and apartment owners who would be affected by a mandate.
The proposal has drawn the ire of high-rise residents who argue that it would pose an undue and unfair burden on them that could force them to find tens of thousands of dollars to pay for the sprinklers.
However, “it appears, based on the input we received from the fire chief and the representatives of the Fire Department, not all buildings would have to be retrofitted within a five-year period,” Menor said. “The focus of the Fire Department will be with the buildings they consider to be high risk.”
Neves pointed to a 2005 report that had been issued by the Fire Safety Advisory Commission.
“We’re reconvening those folks and inviting those who want to be a part of it,” the chief said after the meeting. Neves said he hopes to have a preliminary report done in about a month and a final report by October.
The department has not backed off its historical position that all residential structures be required to have sprinklers, he said.
“But we also understand it’s going to take the whole community to put this together,” he said. “The whole community has to be part of the solution. We’re still of the opinion that the end result should be mandatory sprinklers. But we might have some incentives, and we might have some relief from other parts of the code.”
At the beginning of the meeting, HFD brass submitted their own draft of the bill, calling for a 12-year timeline for all residential high-rises to install sprinklers. Those with the greatest risk factors would need to retrofit first, he said.
The recommended model fire code, which is advisory, calls for sprinklers to be installed in residential high-rises within 12 years. But the state Fire Council removed that from the state Fire Code, Assistant Fire Chief Socrates Bratakos said.
“The state Fire Code does that. … We remove a lot of retrofit provisions for nightclubs, for schools, for other types of occupancies, because they can be onerous,” Bratakos said. “And then we allow the counties to decide whether to put those provisions back in the code.”
Neves told the committee that the department has ranked all 358 buildings that are 75 feet or taller and do not have sprinklers based on certain risk factors. Those structures considered to be at greatest risk are those that are tallest, contain the most units, and whether their common corridor is open-air or enclosed, he said.
Based on what the advisory commission concludes, the 15 or 20 buildings with the highest risk factors may be required to retrofit first, Neves said. Others may be allowed more time or perhaps not retrofit at all, he said.
“So we’re waiting on the committee to make those kinds of recommendations,” he said. Some on the committee members will focus on code issues, while others will look at how the sprinklers will be financed, he said.
Neves declined to give the Star-Advertiser a copy of the list ranking the risk factors of residential high-rises without sprinklers, but said the list will become public when he submits it to the Council in the coming weeks.
The chief was asked by Council members whether HFD had determined a cause of the Marco Polo fire. Neves responded that he had a preliminary report on his desk but that he was not ready to make it public. Pressed for details by Councilman Ikaika Anderson, Neves declined to do so.
Caldwell made a rare appearance at the Council’s second-floor committee room, urging members to pass the bill and not stall on the issue “so that we don’t let time slip by and the tragic events at Marco Polo dim into memory.”
Caldwell said he’s OK if the bill allows more time for towers to retrofit. “I’m not wedded to 12 years; it could be 20 years,” he said, adding that those at highest risk should be required to retrofit first.
Jane Sugimura, president of the Hawaii Council of Associations of Apartment Owners, urged the committee members to defer action.
“You need to find out what happened at Marco Polo,” she said. Her organization does not oppose the mandatory sprinkler bill, but contends that requiring all 358 buildings to retrofit within five years is unreasonable and cost-prohibitive.
Sugimura supported the idea of having the advisory commission analyze the situation before making recommendations.
Waikiki condominium owner Chris Fogle also urged the Council to hold off on the bill. “Each of you have taken it upon yourselves to remodel my home and my bank account,” he said.
Kobayashi, among the Council members who’s raised the most concerns about the cost of retrofitting on elderly or fixed-income condo owners, said the community meeting is tentatively scheduled for Sept. 16 at Blaisdell Center.
Bratakos said the estimated cost of the Marco Polo fire is $107 million.