A residential fire safety panel led by Honolulu Fire Chief Manuel Neves is recommending that only older residential highrises with interior hallways should be required to install automatic fire sprinklers.
The recommendation comes in the wake of the July 14 fire at the Marco Polo condominiums, which killed four people and caused more than $100 million in damage. The Marco Polo does not have sprinklers.
Mayor Kirk Caldwell had introduced a bill that would have required all residential buildings higher than 75 feet to install sprinklers. That would have affected more than 300 buildings on Oahu. The City Council deferred the bill until after Wednesday's report by the Residential Fire Safety Advisory Committee.
The committee now says about 150 older high-rise buildings with interior hallways -- like the Marco Polo -- should have sprinklers.
According to the panel, retrofitting the Marco Polo with sprinklers would cost $4,305.55 per unit.
The committee also released estimates for three other condominiums. At 1001 Wilder Avenue, which has just 67 units, the cost to retrofit would be $10,459.70 per unit. At the Pearl One in Aiea, it would cost $8,550 per unit. And at the Royal Court condos, the cost would be $13,473.21.
"If they have to add sprinklers to their building, it's just going to add to their costs, and the people in the buildings are elderly, too, many of them," said Honolulu City Councilwoman Ann Kobayashi, whose district includes several residential buildings.
The panel suggested giving condo associations 12 years to install the sprinklers, which could spread the cost over the longer period of time.
"They will be able to put this in their budget, save money and do it," said Jane Sugimura, president of the Hawaii Council of Associations of Apartment Owners. "But my feeling is that it should be up to he associations to determine whether or not they want to do the retrofitting."
The talk of costs is a far cry from the urgency in the days after the July tragedy. Neves said at a press conference the day of the Marco Polo fire, "Without a doubt, if they were sprinklers in this apartment, the fire would be contained to the unit of origin, so it would be in that unit where the fire started."
At the same press conference, Caldwell said, "Yes, I think we're going to need legislation to do exactly that in our older highrise buildings."
However, money will still be an issue.
"Bottom line is that the 150 buildings, at a minimum, are going to have to do partial retrofitting, which is in the hallways and in the common elements, and I don't think that's fair because it is going to cost a whole lot of money," said Sugimura.
"It's such a hardship," said Kobayashi. "Even if we get them a low-interest loan, it's just this added cost every month."