After high-rise blaze, property managers mull fire suppression
Cost to retrofit older Maui complexes with sprinklers considered too expensive by some
Even before a Honolulu high-rise fire killed three people July 14, Sue Kamalo was worried about apartment building fires.
A month ago, the general manager of the Harbor Lights condominiums in Kahului saw the news about the deadly Grenfell Tower blaze in London, which has killed 39 people and counting as of Wednesday. It put Harbor Lights owners on alert, and they’ve been working to update their fire safety measures ever since.
“We got scared,” Kamalo said. “The London fire woke us up, and we just wanted to make sure that we were safe.”
Now, after the tragedy in the 36-story Marco Polo building in Honolulu, which did not have fire-suppression sprinklers, lawmakers are again taking a hard look at sprinkler rules in high-rises.
In Maui County, just about every hotel and high-rise — defined by County Code as any building over 75 feet, or about seven stories — has automatic sprinklers. But there are a number of multistory residential buildings that don’t have sprinklers, and while firefighters and residents say installing them is ideal, they also realize it can be costly.
“It would be a benefit to everyone that lives in that building,” said Capt. Paul Haake of the Maui Fire Prevention Bureau. “It would be a benefit to the firefighters. . . . Sprinklers usually put out the fire about 90 percent of the time, or if not, they keep the fire really small, confined to one unit. . . . Unfortunately, it takes a fire and some people to get hurt before they start looking at sprinklers as important.”
A CHANGE IN CODE
In 1996, Maui County adopted the 1988 Uniform Fire Code, published by the International Conference of Building Officials and the Western Fire Chiefs Association. But, local lawmakers added a provision that called for retrofitting “existing hotel-use” buildings with sprinklers, Haake explained.
“Buildings that were 45 feet (about four stories) or taller and designated for hotel use had to be protected with an engineer-designed fire sprinkler system,” Haake said. “Existing buildings were evaluated and all those that fell into this category were noticed and given time to comply. By the mid-2000s, all the identified existing buildings had been retrofitted with fire sprinkler protection.”
Luckily for the county, there were fewer than 20 buildings that needed systems, “so it was more feasible to the lawmakers to adopt the code and implement the retrofit,” Haake said.
But residential buildings weren’t included in the retrofit. Maui Fire Chief Jeff Murray said it wasn’t about catering to the tourism industry. Visitors staying in unfamiliar hotels pose more of a risk during a fire than residents who are comfortable with the layout of their buildings.
In 1997, the county raised the minimum building height for sprinklers from 45 feet to 75 feet. Today, any structure — hotel, residential or otherwise — built above 75 feet must have sprinklers.
There’s only one building over 75 feet that’s not completely sprinkler-equipped, and that’s the nine-story county building in Wailuku, according to Murray. While the water pipes can accommodate all floors, some of the actual sprinkler heads haven’t been installed yet.
Meanwhile, there’s no telling how many pre-1996 residential multistory buildings are without sprinklers. The four-story Harbor Lights is one of them. Built in 1974, Harbor Lights doesn’t have sprinklers and wasn’t required to install them. But owners are putting in other measures, Kamalo said.
Last week, new fire doors with panic bars, which allow people to exit the door but not go back in, were installed. An electrician is placing about 200 smoke detectors above every alcove in all four buildings.
“And they’re loud, believe me,” Kamalo said.
Before, Harbor Lights had only pull stations, the manually activated alarms. Updating the complex has cost about $130,000 so far, including $35,000 for new fire doors, $6,000 for smoke detectors and $50,000 for the electrician. It’s all come out of the owner’s reserve fund, not tenants’ bills, Kamalo said.
She estimated that at least 1,500 people live in the 352 units.
Puuone Towers in Wailuku was built in 1973 and doesn’t have sprinklers either. But resident manager Tony Barber said that the five-story, 90-unit building is all cement and steel.
“This is one of the safer ones because the outer structure can’t really burn,” he said. “We’re more worried about an earthquake than a fire here, that’s for sure.”
Puuone Towers has smoke alarms in the lobby and on every floor and a panel that indicates when one alarm fails. Fire extinguishers are inspected annually. Barber said retrofitting buildings as old and as big as Puuone Towers would be costly for residents, all of whom live there full time.
“A lot of people would sell their units because their dues would skyrocket,” he said. “It’s not feasible. . . . Our budget is so small.”
NEW FIRE, SAME PROBLEM
The sprinkler question isn’t new. Every so often, an apartment building catches fire and reignites the debate. Honolulu Mayor Kirk Caldwell is the latest in a long line of government officials to call for an investigation of sprinkler rules.
“Pretty soon we forget after the funerals,” Murray said. “But those families never forget. How do we solve that issue for a family that is not knowing that this is going to happen to them?”
Four years ago, a nonfatal fire lit up the issue on Maui. In March 2013, a late-night blaze engulfed a third-story unit at the 40-unit Hale Kamaole condominiums in Kihei. Tourists and residents reported 10-foot-high flames extending to the balcony and roof of the three-story structure. About 80 people evacuated, though no one was injured.
Hale Kamaole, which was built in 1974, did not have sprinklers, said Peter Yaksic, who was the property manager there for 30 years. Fortunately, the building had thick walls with insulation, so the burn damage was limited to one unit. Nearby units sustained mostly water damage.
Having sprinklers “makes sense, but I don’t know how you would be able to do that,” Yaksic said. “That would just max everybody’s reserve (funds) right out of the box.”
The costs would fall to individual condo owners, and even Hale Kamaole, which has more in its reserve than the state requires, wouldn’t be able to pay for sprinkler retrofitting all at once, he said. If the county were to require it, he suggested giving owners a few years to pay off the costs.
Because the 2013 incident was confined to one unit, Yaksic said he’s not overly concerned about future fires, as long as Hale Kamaole and other complexes take the right steps.
“If they take precautions . . . then I think they’ll be in good shape,” he said. “But if they’re not doing what they’re supposed to be, they’ll be in a whole heap of trouble.”
Murray said sprinklers don’t have to be as expensive as people think.
“If you add fire sprinklers, you can cut back on other areas that would probably offset the costs of fire sprinklers,” he explained. “For instance, your drywall doesn’t have to be as thick.”
While the chief is all for sprinklers, he’s not advocating retrofitting.
“Unless the data shows we should retrofit . . . I don’t think we should force people to retrofit,” he said. “Retrofitting should happen during a remodel.”
What Murray does think needs to happen is better regulations moving forward, and soon. For almost a decade, fire officials have been pushing for sprinkler requirements in single- and multifamily dwel-lings. Murray also thinks lowering the 75-foot rule back down to 45 feet “would make a huge difference.”
“It behooves us to make these decisions really early because it affects people 20 years from now,” Murray said.
Maui County doesn’t have the large numbers of nonsprinkler-equipped buildings that Oahu does, and most high-rises in the county are nowhere near the height of Honolulu’s skyscrapers. But Murray said he hoped the Marco Polo incident could spark discussion and decisions on sprinklers in buildings.
“With the tragic fire on Oahu, it is likely prudent for both the administration and council to review Maui County’s Fire Code to see if any appropriate changes are needed,” Maui County Council Chairman Mike White said. “Before any action is taken, it is important to get a better understanding on the number of multistory units that do not yet contain sprinklers.”
* Colleen Uechi can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.