Most buildings failing fire life-safety evaluations, hundreds more pending

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HONOLULU (KHON2) — Nearly four years after the deadly Marco Polo fire, hundreds of residential high rises across Honolulu are still struggling with updated fire safety requirements.

Requirements passed in the wake of the blaze let building associations choose between installing sprinklers or passing an alternative “Life Safety Evaluation” (LSE).

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Only one-third of more than 300 old LSE-eligible buildings have done the review, and just a handful have been able to pass.

In July 2017, a fire at the Marco Polo condominium high rise in Honolulu killed four people, injured more than a dozen others, and caused more than $100 million in loss and damage.

The following spring a new law went into effect mandating more than 300 older residential high rises to either install sprinklers or pass an alternative LSE’s — something only six buildings have been able to do so far out of the 100 that have turned in a report to the Honolulu Fire Department.

“You’ve got all these buildings that are failing, and the buildings are going to have to spend a lot of money to come into compliance,” said Jane Sugimura, president of the Hawaii Council Of Community Associations.

Sugimura lives in one of the buildings that didn’t pass, the Pearl One condos.

“One of the recommendations that our engineer gave us was we have to upgrade our fire alarm system,” Sugimura said. “That is going to run us maybe $1.2 million. Sprinklers are going to cost us maybe $10 million.”

Some of the most common flaws triggering evaluation failure are vertical openings, which are areas around pipes and conduits inside the walls spanning many or most floors.

“They told us during the taskforce meetings that the vertical openings at the Marco Polo are large enough for person to fit through,” Sugimura said. “That creates a problem because the fire and the air moves up.”

Also hampering passing scores: fire and smoke alarm deficiencies, and sufficient closure of corridor doors.

“The fire department says with the Marco Polo, there were doors that were left open,” Sugimura said. “That’s corridor doors that didn’t close, Unit doors that didn’t close. What that did is that makes the fire spread.”

Hundreds more buildings haven’t even done the life safety evaluation yet and are racing an already extended deadline of next May, instead of this past spring, to do the report. Then, any fixes flagged in failing evaluations have to be up to done by spring 2025.

“You get a point by point,” Sugimura said. “I think with ours, we must have 20-some-odd things. Some of it was small stuff, but some of it was large.”

A Honolulu City Council committee is holding a briefing Tuesday afternoon about the challenges faced so far, and apartment owners might try asking for more time, subsidies like property tax credits, or help with permits.

“Their maintenance fees are going to go up,” Sugimura said. “If you’ve got all these buildings having to apply to get permits, then they’re going to have to fast-track us.”

The evaluation system is rare in terms of a large city with a sprinkler-alternative rating; only Chicago has something similar. Honolulu’s LSE is a rigorous chart that evaluates building components and whether occupants and firefighters can safely get out in a blaze.

“If it looks like it’s just too hard to pass, then maybe it’s time to change the matrix,” Sugimura said. “Change the requirements but still keep the life safety evaluation in place to make sure that the buildings are safer.”

Previously the Honolulu Fire Department has told the city council they have no suggested changes to the fire safety law or the evaluation system. We’ll follow up after Tuesday’s hearing.

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