Honolulu mayor signs high-rise fire safety bill
- By Gordon Y.K. Pang
- Updated 11:08 p.m.
A measure making it easier for owners of older high-rise condominiums to meet stricter fire safety regulations was signed into law Thursday by Mayor Kirk Caldwell.
Bill 96 (2018) makes it clear that the owners of roughly 360-plus pre-1970 buildings at least 75 feet tall not equipped with sprinklers have the option of either installing sprinklers both in enclosed common areas and individual units, or undergo a building and life safety evaluation.
The evaluation would require the owners or their condominium associations to score a certain number of points based on a list of 17 categories. The evaluation could still call on the condominium owners to install sprinklers if they don’t score enough “credits.” The original law required the evaluation even when the owners opted to install sprinklers.
Additionally, the new bill gives the associations additional credit in some evaluation categories, including mobility, standpipes and elevators.
The new language also allows the six-year compliance timeline to be paused or suspended whenever the Department of Planning and Permitting cannot process a building permit within 90 days. The actual additional time allowed would be the number of days beyond 90 that building owners would need to wait. DPP has been under fire recently for holding up projects due to lengthy permit approval times. DPP Acting Director Kathy Sokugawa has promised to give top priority to building permit applications from this category, the mayor said.
Also included is a change in the language that would allow an evaluation to be prepared not just by a licensed design professional, but “a building’s authorized representative under the supervision of a licensed design professional.” The completed evaluation would still need to be stamped with the licensed design professional’s authorized seal or stamp.
The Council first passed tougher requirements last year in the wake of the July 2017 fire at the Marco Polo condominium that killed four people. The original plan would have required all 360-plus buildings without automatic sprinkler systems to install them. But condo owners voiced concerns that the cost of installing a system might force some of them to sell their units. The version of the bill that eventually became law instead requires owners to conduct a building fire and safety evaluation within three years and to comply with the evaluation’s findings in six years.
Surrounded by several dozen uniformed firefighters, Caldwell signed the bill in front of the Rainbow Place Condominiums tower, the site April 20 of a 21st-floor fire that resulted in the death of a senior male. The building has no sprinklers. The association is on the list that must choose between a safety evaluation or installing sprinklers.
Caldwell applauded Council members Carol Fukunaga and Ann Kobayashi for introducing the new bill.
“I think it’s a fair compromise,” Caldwell said, adding that he received assurances from Fire Chief Manuel Neves that it would not “delay in any way buildings becoming safer for the people who live in the buildings and our firefighters.”
Jane Sugimura, president of the Hawaii Council of Associations of Apartment Owners, said “the whole purpose of … the bill is to clarify what was in the original bill,” which left her members with many questions. Having an option is important because “installing sprinklers is a very expensive proposition,” especially for people on fixed incomes.
Neves said, however, “We continue to propose that sprinklers are the best and most effective means of keeping everybody safe.”
Caldwell said five buildings have completed their life safety evaluations, and 30 others are underway.
Since the Marco Polo fire, there have been, besides Rainbow Place, two other major high-rise condominium fires that involved condos without sprinklers. One occurred in March on the top floor of Chateau Waikiki and the other one Thursday, just hours before the news conference, on the 11th floor of an 18-story building in Salt Lake, Neves said.
“That building should, and will, do a life safety evaluation or put in a sprinkler system,” he said.
Last year the Council passed a bill that would have extended the time for owners to complete a safety evaluation by two years, but the measure was vetoed by Caldwell.