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Mayor Caldwell: Retrofit Fire Sprinklers in High Rise Condos

Wayne Yoshioka

The devastating fire at the Marco Polo Condominium left 3 residents dead and more than a dozen injured, Friday.  As HPR’s Wayne Yoshioka reports, residents and lawmakers are now looking at requiring automatic fire sprinkler systems in all high rise condominiums to prevent another tragedy.

Credit Wayne Yoshioka
Marco Polo resident, Anna Viggiano

“I feel grateful and lucky but I also feel almost guilty that we are fine and my neighbors are gone and have lost everything.”

Anna Viggiano lives at the Marco Polo condominium where 3 of her fellow residents died in what she calls a horrific fire on Friday.  The condominium was built in1971, before automatic water sprinklers were required by building code.

“My daughter yesterday she said, ‘It’s time to move.’  And I said, ‘Well we can’t leave now.  You know, how are we gonna sell our unit.’  And this is so ironic.  The week before we got a letter from Coldwell Banker and they said would you consider selling for 10 percent over the market price.  And how ironic that this is happening and I’m sure the values will go down.”

Viggiano lived through 2 smaller fires at the Marco Polo in 2010 and 2013, when the Association of Apartment Owners considered retrofitting the building with a sprinkler system.   Retired Honolulu Fire Department Captain, Richard Soo, says retrofitting is long overdue.

Credit Wayne Yoshioka
Retired HFD Captain Richard Soo

“A fire sprinkler system in Marco Polo would probably stop it in the initial room where the fire occurred.”

But, Soo, says the Legislature has not updated the Fire Code in decades to require sprinklers in high rise buildings taller than 75 feet.

“Maybe 300 existing high rises need to be retrofitted; fully sprinkled.  But you got lobbyists that constantly delete that portion of the fire code.  Very unfortunate.  Because the fire code is a national code.  You cannot just delete, delete, delete.  It waters down the code.”

Representative Tom Brower, who lives in a non-sprinkler condominium in Waikiki, chairs the Housing Committee.  He says the issue was before the legislature last session and will be at the top of the list in January.

“My choice would be that condominiums as well as homes decide for themselves, should they want sprinklers.  The tough part is sometimes it can be a million dollars.  It can be anywhere from $3-thousand to $5-thousand per unit.  That’s the tough part.”

But, Honolulu Mayor, Kirk Caldwell, is not waiting for the state legislature to act.

“We’re gonna be introducing a bill this week to require retrofitting of buildings that are 75 feet or higher that do not have a sprinkler system in the building.  And we will leave open the issue of how to pay.  There may be other funding mechanisms, too and that’s something that we’d like to explore with the City Council and of course, in hearings, explore with the community, what’s the best approach to take.”

Retired Fire Captain Soo has his own approach.

“Now is the time to lobby.  Talk to your representatives.  You know, give them an ear full.  They deserve it.”

Marco Polo resident, Viggiano, says their association has scheduled an emergency meeting and she’s hopeful.

“As they’re repairing the units that they just go ahead and get sprinklers throughout the hallways and in all the units.  We all have to have smoke detectors but that’s nothing when something is on fire.”

For HPR News, I’m Wayne Yoshioka.

Wayne Yoshioka
Wayne Yoshioka is an award-winning journalist who has worked in television, print and radio in Hawaiʻi. He also has been on both sides of politics as a state departmental appointee and political/government reporter. He covered Hurricane Iwa (1982) as a TV reporter; was the State Department of Defense/Civil Defense spokesperson for Hurricane Iniki (1992); and, commanded a public affairs detachment in Afghanistan (2006). He has a master's degree in Communication from the University of Hawaiʻi at Mānoa and is a decorated combat veteran (Legion of Merit, Bronze Star and 22 other commendation/service medals). He resides in Honolulu.
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