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The Honolulu Advertiser
Posted on: Wednesday, February 2, 2005

High-rise fires fuel debate on sprinklers

By Mike Gordon
Advertiser Staff Writer

Two apartment fires last week, including one that left an elderly man dead in Waikiki, could be the catalyst for a mandate to retrofit the city's older residential high-rise buildings with fire sprinkler systems, fire officials and community leaders said.

Sprinkler work pricey, not easy

Retrofitting an old residential high-rise with an automatic sprinkler system can be costly and each building presents unique problems, said James Striker, owner of Reliable Fire Protection.

Here are some of the things needed:

• A 4-inch or 6-inch water line dedicated to the fire system, the cost of which is influenced by how far it needs to travel from city water pipes.

• The water line goes to a pumping system that provides and maintains pressure in the system throughout the building. The pumping system alone can cost $50,000.

• Control valves on every floor.

• Each unit will have different installation and cost issues that are influenced by access, concrete walls that need to be drilled and how important it is to the homeowner to have the pipes concealed. Each unit must be individually evaluated.

But they also say the long-simmering issue is bound to create fierce debate among homeowners and the associations that represent them because installation costs can run into thousands of dollars per apartment unit.

The fires — one Thursday morning in Makiki and the other Friday night in Waikiki — come as a city residential fire safety task force prepares to discuss ways to legislate retrofitting and as three state lawmakers propose tax credits to make it more palatable.

Task force member Ken Silva, who also is the Honolulu Fire Department's assistant chief of support services, has supported mandatory sprinklers for years. The 24-year firefighter said the mood now is different than in 2001 when city lawmakers debated the issue.

"We have been proposing legislation for years now but it has never been receptive to anyone," Silva said. "It is encouraging to hear legislators talking about a bill to provide tax incentives."

The task force, which was created a few months ago by the Honolulu City Council, will meet for the first time at 9 a.m. Friday at Honolulu Hale, Room 205.

City Council Chairman Donovan Dela Cruz said the recent fires have focused attention on changes needed to improve fire safety in older residential buildings. "I'm hoping that the apartment owners and the Fire Department can reach some consensus," he said.

Dela Cruz said he knows that the high cost of retrofitting has always stopped the measure in the past. He wonders if other safety improvements — better plans, escape routes or other measures — could help.

Silva said task force members originally thought they would need a year to come up with recommendations for the council. Now he believes it will take just six months.

"I think everything has been accelerated because of what has happened in the last few days," Silva said.

Silva estimated that about 300 residential high-rise buildings in Honolulu do not have sprinkler systems. All were built before a 1975 law requiring sprinklers in buildings higher than 75 feet.

Retrofitting sprinklers became a hot topic after the Interstate Building fire in April 2000, which caused $13 million in damage and injured 11 firefighters. A year later, the City Council required sprinklers in commercial buildings, but was unable to mandate them for residential high-rises.

Cost has always been an issue. The Fire Department estimated retrofitting could cost $2.50 to $5 a square foot.

Jane Sugimura, president of the Hawai'i Council of Associations of Apartment Owners, said a city study showed that retrofitting the 112-unit Royal Court would have cost $8,982 per unit, or more than $1 million for the entire building.

At the 67-unit 1001 Wilder, the cost was $6,993 per unit. And in the 300-unit building she calls home, Pearl 1, the price tag was $5,701 per unit.

Any homeowner being told to pony up that kind of money would be outraged, especially those on fixed incomes, she said.

Homeowner associations barely have enough money to cover maintenance costs and many buildings are so old that they need expensive work done on things already there.

But Sugimura said homeowners need to speak up in the name of safety. She said the tax credits proposed this week by three state legislators could make this an easier sell.

Sugimura said her association fought retrofitting a few years ago, but the recent fires may be changing minds.

On Sunday, state Reps. Glenn Wakai, D-31st (Salt Lake, Tripler), Scott Nishimoto, D-21st (Kapahulu, Diamond Head), and Brian Schatz, D-25th (Makiki, Tantalus), said they want to provide a tax credit of up to $1,000 a year for five years for people who install sprinklers.

To be effective, however, a retrofitting project would require the entire building to participate, said real-estate consultant Stephany Sofos, who lives in a condominium and owns residential buildings.

The effort also would create unique problems for individual units.

A homeowner who did extensive remodeling would not want to suddenly have exposed pipes running along a ceiling, for example.

"If you leave it open, you have these lines and then it is so ugly I have to think about re-doing my whole ceiling," said Sofos, who has heard retrofitting estimates of as high as $10 a square foot. "The construction people would be making money for the rest of their lives."

The thought of a fire, though, should be enough incentive for anyone, Sofos said.

"No one wants to die in a fire," she said. "That has to be the worst thing."

As a veteran firefighter, Silva knows that all too well. Fighting a high-rise fire is dangerous and difficult.

Silva views this as a personal quest and he believes change is near.

"No matter how this shakes out, I am encouraged," he said. "We had been hitting our head against the wall for a few years. If there is one thing I could contribute to make this community more fire safe, this would be it."

Staff writer Robbie Dingeman contributed to this report.

Reach Mike Gordon at mgordon@honoluluadvertiser.com or 525-8012.