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The Honolulu Advertiser
Posted on: Thursday, April 29, 2010

High-rise fire code program faulted

Advertiser Staff

The city auditor's office has found fault with the Honolulu Fire Department's program to ensure that high-rise residential buildings comply with the fire code.

The audit, released yesterday, found the department's database on fire inspections of high-rise buildings to be incomplete, inaccurate and unable to track compliance with state law.

In a second major finding, the auditor concluded the department lacks "a systematic approach in the collection of fire inspection data and information needed to assess program effectiveness ."

The audit examined the high-rise fire code inspection program for the period of July 1, 2005, through Dec. 31, 2008, and concluded that 39 percent of the buildings on a list it compiled had not been inspected within the preceeding two years, as required under state law.

In a five-page response to the audit, Fire Chief Kenneth Silva pointed out that state law was amended in 2009 and now requires high-rise buildings to be inspected at least once every five years.

Fire Capt. Terry Seelig, department spokesman, said that even with the advent of the computer age, keeping track of every high-rise building on the island and updating each fire inspection report, even every five years instead of every two years, is a difficult task.

"It's a complex, multi-faceted collection of data," Seelig said. "The purpose is not to prevent fires, per se, but to help building owners understand how to comply with (fire code) requirements."

Seelig said the department has 17 fire inspectors to cover the whole island.

In his response letter, Silva said getting money to hire more inspectors "is difficult due to forecasted budgetary constraints on city and state agencies." He said the department hopes to obtain grants from the U.S. Department of Homeland Security which could be used toward that end.

Silva said the Fire Department is working with other city agencies in hopes of making major improvements to the fire inspection database, with target dates of July and January.

Seelig said the department is working to correct the deficiencies pointed out in the audit, but said "not all of them can be fixed overnight."

"We're not at all embarrassed by the audit, it's part of being a big fire department in a big city," Seelig said. "It becomes a question of where we put our resources."

One of the department's top priorities is to see that public school facilities are inspected each year, during October and November.

And while the audit pertained to high-rise residential buildings, the department takes a global approach to fire prevention through public education at workshops, classes, neighborhood board meetings and the Fire Department website, Seelig said.

In addition , the department continues to lobby at the Legislature to have all high-rise residential buildings equipped with sprinkler systems. At present, only high-rises built after 1974 are required to have them, Seelig said.