A Jan. 27 fire at a Makiki condominium, which destroyed five units and left about a dozen people homeless, has helped draw attention to the problem of older buildings that lack fire sprinkler systems.

Mayor pushes
sprinkler measure

The cost of retrofitting residential
high-rises is a primary obstacle

Mayor Mufi Hannemann is calling on the City Council to draft and pass legislation that would require sprinkler systems in all residential high-rises, but such a mandate would be expensive with the costs likely passed on to tenants.

Fire prevention measures

The City Council has considered making high-rises more fire-safe several times in the past decades. Here is a look at some of the legislation passed:

» In 1983 the Council passed a bill requiring high-rise hotels to be retrofitted with sprinkler systems. The legislation was spurred by a fatal hotel fire in Las Vegas.

» In 1992 the Council approved a bill requiring all existing high-rise residential buildings to install smoke detectors.

» In 2001 a bill was passed that required all commercial high-rises to have sprinklers. The law affected about 35 structures, which were required to have sprinkler systems in five years. It was introduced after an April 2000 blaze at the Interstate Building on King Street which injured 11 firefighters and caused millions of dollars in damage.

"Public health and safety is the No. 1 concern," Hannemann said yesterday at a meeting of the Council's residential fire safety advisory committee. "The lives of both our city's residents and our Honolulu firefighters are at stake here."

Four years ago the Council failed to pass a similar bill for residential high-rises after building owners' strong opposition.

Some estimated the cost of installing a sprinkler system at more than $1 million per building, much of which would likely be covered by higher maintenance and other fees for a building's tenants.

"I don't know where the money's going to come from," said Diane Wack, resident manager at the Kalia on Ena Road. "It's going to be big bucks. ... It's just like California trying to retrofit all their bridges for earthquakes."

Supporters of the proposal say the city could create tax credits, rebates and other programs to help lower costs. Compliance requirements could also be stretched to 10 or more years, rather than the five to seven years suggested in an earlier proposal, officials said.

But City Council Budget Chairwoman Ann Kobayashi said the city does not have the money to subsidize sprinkler installation costs for buildings. She also said many high-rise tenants are seniors on fixed incomes and would not be able to afford an increase in fees.

"It's really a tough problem," she said. "Credits are always costly ... but there really is not a price when we're talking about people's lives."

There are more than 300 high-rises on Oahu that do not have sprinkler systems. All were built before 1975, the year that newly built high-rises were required to have sprinklers.

Officials are hoping two high-rise fires late last month -- one of which was fatal -- will help rally support for the issue.

On Jan. 28 a Waikiki high-rise blaze left an elderly man dead and a woman critically injured. Just a day earlier, more than 11 people had been left homeless after a Makiki condominium fire.

"We believe sprinklers in both would have definitely made a difference," said Fire Department spokesman Capt. Emmit Kane. "We hope that it doesn't take additional loss of life to realize their (sprinkler systems') value."

Hannemann said the recent fires "serve as a wake-up call for the need for sprinkler systems."

He added that he is aware of the costs of retrofitting a high-rise with sprinklers, "but if even only one life were to be saved, it will have been worth the investment."

Assistant Fire Chief Ken Silva, a member of the City Council's residential fire safety committee, said it has always taken tragedy to convince lawmakers to pass sprinkler legislation.

In 1983, after a fatal hotel fire in Las Vegas, the City Council passed a bill requir- ing high-rise hotels to be retrofitted with sprinkler systems.

Eighteen years later the Council required that all commercial high-rises have sprinklers. The law, which affected about 35 structures, was spurred by a 2000 blaze at the Interstate Building on King Street that injured 11 firefighters, destroyed dozens of offices and caused millions in damage.

Silva said the fire safety committee will present the Council with possible incentives for the program, including tax credits, as early as this month.

He is also compiling information for Council members on costs for installing sprinkler systems in high-rises and what other cities require.

Also, he said, supporters of the proposal are watching a bill before the Legislature that would give tax credits to apartment owners who install sprinkler systems.

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