Tragic Fire Motivates Legislators to Reconsider Mandatory Retrofitting in Older Apartment Buildings
The tragic fire that broke out on Friday, July 14, 2017, at the Marco Polo Apartments in Honolulu has catalyzed action on the part of Hawaii’s legislators to mandate retrofitting of high-rise apartments to include automatic fire sprinklers.
The fire, which broke out on the 26th floor, quickly spread to multiple units in the high-rise condominium building built in 1971, before automatic fire sprinklers were required by the building and fire codes. Three people died and others were admitted to the hospital in critical condition.
Retired Honolulu Fire Department Captain, Richard Soo, stated to Hawaii Public Radio that retrofitting was long overdue, and that a fire sprinkler system in the Marco Polo apartments would likely have contained the fire to the unit in which it began.
Honolulu Mayor, Kirk Caldwell, told HPR that he planned to introduce a bill this week to require retrofitting of buildings 75 feet or higher that do not have an automatic sprinkler system. Mr. Caldwell stated that the issue of funding – which has been the biggest obstacle to requiring mandatory retrofitting – will be left open and community opinion will be sought.
In 2005, a task force was established by the Honolulu City Council to calculate the costs of retrofitting four of the roughly 300 residential buildings in Honolulu without automatic fire suppression systems. The task force determined that the cost to install sprinklers at the Marco Polo apartments in 2005 would have been $4,305 per unit. That expense was deemed too costly at the time.
The Star Advertiser reported that the 2005 task force also determined that the costs per unit were higher for smaller buildings, including Pearl One in Aiea at $8,550 per unit, 1001 Wilder Ave. at $10,459 per unit, and The Royal Court on Ward Avenue at $13,473 per unit.
The task force suggested incentive, including a property tax credit, low-income loans sponsored by the City and a break on mandatory maintenance expenses for pipe systems that firefighters use to pump water up to high floors.
While the costs of installing an automatic sprinkler system may seem prohibitively expensive, the tragedy of the Marco Polo Apartment fire is a sobering lesson for Associations and Boards considering retrofitting their buildings to bring them into current code compliance.