City bills propose
Older high-rises would needBy Gordon Y.K. Pang
to be retrofitted to avoid damage
as from the Interstate Building fire
City Council Chairman Jon Yoshimura has introduced two bills in response to a call by Honolulu Fire Chief Attilio Leonardi and others to require older Oahu high-rises be retrofitted with sprinklers after last Saturday's Interstate Building fire.
The bills would establish minimum safety requirements for buildings. Business buildings more than 75 feet above the lowest level of fire department vehicle access would be required to install fire sprinkler systems.
Yoshimura introduced the bills in cooperation with Councilman Andy Mirikitani and the Honolulu Fire Department. He said they provide a basis for communication between businesses and the city.
The first bill is in line with existing ordinances, he said, while the second bill has more guidelines in line with the fire code.
Mayor Jeremy Harris and Yoshimura wanted to hear from Leonardi before deciding whether to support tougher sprinkler laws.
Leonardi was on the mainland when the Interstate Building fire occurred last Saturday and did not return until Thursday night.
He said sprinklers are 96 percent effective and "would have contained the fire, probably to the room of origin."
The fire raged for some four hours and destroyed nearly everything on the 16th floor, the top floor, where it originated. Additionally, it required 11 firefighters to be treated and caused untold damage to businesses on other floors due to water and smoke.
The chief said yesterday there is no question that the Interstate Building should have had sprinklers, adding that he is thankful the situation was not worse.
"If it happened, say, on the fifth floor on a busy day, on a normal workday, the amount of heat -- once the fire gets ahead of you like that, it could easily leapfrog and go throughout the whole building," Leonardi said.
The Interstate Building was built before an existing law that requires all new structures 75 feet and higher to have sprinklers.
Following a deadly fire at the Las Vegas MGM Grand in 1983, the Honolulu Council passed an ordinance requiring all hotels 75 feet and higher to have sprinklers.
Leonardi said the fire department wanted commercial and residential buildings to be included in that ordinance, but that provision was shot down by building interests who cited the high cost of retrofitting buildings with sprinklers.
Told that Interstate Building owners declined to retrofit voluntarily in 1998 for $1 million, the chief said, "Wow, I think that the damage in this building alone is going to be more than a million dollars."
The chief said he is not opposed to giving building owners a period of time to retrofit, and encourages the Council to look at economic incentives.
City Managing Director Ben Lee said Harris is willing to support Leonardi's recommendation, provided the chief comes up with supporting documentation. That report is due late next week, Lee said.
Yesterday, Yoshimura said Council members would join Leonardi on a site visit to the Interstate Building on Monday.
Both the Building Owners and Managers Association and the Hawaii Council of Associations of Condominium Owners continue to raise questions about such legislation.
"I don't think anyone would argue with the validity of the point that sprinklers save lives," Miles Kamimura, BOMA president, said. "The reality is, how do we pay for that? Where do you get the blood out of a turnip?"
A phase-in period would help make a sprinkler mandate more palatable, he said.
Jane Sugimura, executive director of the condominium group, said condo owners are already hurting because of the economy.
"If it's a million dollars for (the Interstate), many condos are bigger than that," she said.
While safety is an issue for them, building owners should not be mandated to retrofit, she said.