Honolulu Condo fire stirs controversy over sprinkler retrofits

By Deborah Goonan, Independent American Communities

Fire fighters in Hawaii and other states say that fire sprinklers would have prevented loss of life and property in the recent fire at Marco Polo highrise condominium in Honolulu.

Unfortunately, the fire that started on the 26th floor resulted in three fatalities, at least a dozen people injured, and dozens of condo units destroyed. The tragic story is gaining worldwide attention.

Marco Polo is a 34-floor building with more than 500 apartment units, with an average sale price exceeding half a million dollars.

The primary reason that the 46-year-old luxury high rise was never retrofitted with sprinklers? The condo association cites the high cost – thousands of dollars per unit. Hawaii state Legislature was to consider a new law requiring fire sprinkler retrofits for older multifamily structures like the Marco Polo. But the bill went nowhere.

Deadly Hawaii fire raises concerns about lack of sprinklers in older high-rises across the U.S

Heidi Chang, Jenny Jarvie
LA Times

Moon Yun Pellerin was still in shock as she sat on a bench Saturday morning in the crowded lobby of her Honolulu high-rise. Her home on the 27th floor — owned by her 78-year-old mother who has dementia — had been destroyed when the raging fire broke out.

“We’re homeless now,” said the dazed 49-year-old, who lived in a condo with sweeping views of the city and Koolau mountains with her mother, husband and cat, Sugar.

“We weren’t aware there were no sprinklers,” she said with a sigh.

At least three people died Friday after the fire swept across the upper floors of the Marco Polo condominium building, shooting flames and plumes of thick, black smoke out windows and causing hundreds of residents to evacuate.


The 36-story tower was not equipped with sprinklers.

Residents and officials in Honolulu, like many other cities across the nation, have for years debated the costs and benefits of installing fire sprinkler systems throughout aging residential condominiums. In Honolulu, persuading owners to retrofit the buildings has been a challenge.

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In addition to the fact that Marco Polo building did not have fire sprinklers, AP reports that several owners were unable to hear fire alarms, and did not realize there was a fire until they saw the smoke and flames.

Associa Hawaii manages Marco Polo association, and has offered no explanation as to why the fire alarm system was ineffective at alerting residents. AP reports there were no flashing lights to alert residents with hearing disabilities.

Did the failure of the fire alarm system to promptly alert residents of an emergency situation contribute to loss of life, personal injury, and property damage?

Some residents couldn’t hear alarms in deadly Honolulu blaze

Associated Press
Associated PressJuly 16, 2017

HONOLULU (AP) — As flames raged through a Honolulu high-rise building, killing three people and injuring a dozen others, some residents didn’t even realize a blaze had broken out until they opened their doors or saw firefighters racing to battle the inferno.

Several Marco Polo high-rise residents told The Associated Press the sirens are located in the hallways and they had trouble hearing them when the blaze started. There were also no flashing alarm lights or public announcements about the deadly fire, they said.

Britt Reller was in the shower when the fire started and didn’t realize the building was ablaze until smoke began billowing through his apartment, his brother said. He rushed out to try to save his 85-year-old mother, but he couldn’t reach her and sought refuge from the smoke and flames under a bed.

His brother, a local pastor, was on the phone with Reller at the time. He never heard from him again, and police later told him that both Reller and his mother, Melba Jeannine Dilley, were among those killed.

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The tragic events in Honolulu come on the heels of the veto of HB 653 by Florida’s Governor, Rick Scott. HB 653, passed in both houses of the state Legislature with only one dissenting vote, would have allowed residential condo associations to further delay retrofitting pre-1994 buildings with fire sprinklers or Emergency Life Support Systems (ELSS). Several years ago, Florida enacted a law requiring condo associations to retrofit no later than 2019, and HB 653 would have pushed the deadline to 2022.

Current Florida statute allows unit owners to opt out of retrofitting fire containment and life safety systems if two-thirds of unit owners vote to avoid the expense.

Think about that. Your neighbors can override your personal desire to make your condominium safer.

Also, stop and consider that, although a significant number of condo residents are tenants, only unit owners get to vote on the issue of whether or not to upgrade fire safety standards.


Gov. Scott vetoes bill easing fire-protection requirements for condos



So why did the State Legislature support HB 653?

In the following article, a Florida attorney argues that, by not allowing condo associations to kick the can down the road for three more years, owners will face financial hardship.

Please note that this article was written before the fire in Marco Polo high rise in Honolulu.

Scott veto means condo hardship, lawyer says


In 2013 and 2014, Illinois Realtors successfully defeated a proposed statewide mandate for sprinkler systems in all new construction (including single family homes) and older multifamily condos and apartment buildings.

See this research brochure for details regarding why the state mandate was widely opposed.

The Impact of Mandating Residential Fire Sprinkler Systems

So the controversy comes down to one thing: The Money. Depending on the age and type of construction of a residential structure, and the number of unit owners chipping in for the cost of a retrofit, cost per unit can range from a few thousand dollars to more than $10,000 per unit.

If you have half-million dollar condos like Marco Polo, it’s hard to justify not spending the money. But if you own an “affordable” condo worth less than $150,000, and you have a limited household income, the cost becomes a very big deal.

Still, no matter how rare the occurrence of a catastrophic fire, it’s hard to make a compelling argument against taking common sense safety measures, especially after a what happened in Honolulu.




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