Some urge sprin­kler man­dates across U.S.

The Denver Post - - NEWS - By Caleb Jones and Cathy Busse­witz

HONOLULU» When Moon Yun Pel­lerin’s par­ents bought a 27th-floor apart­ment in a high-rise over­look­ing Waikiki about 15 years ago, they didn’t re­al­ize the wave-shaped build­ing had no fire sprin­klers.

“We didn’t even con­sider it,” Pel­lerin said.

But a week af­ter a mas­sive fire broke out one floor be­low her apart­ment, killing three neigh­bors, Pel­lerin and her fam­ily “def­i­nitely want sprin­klers” in­stalled — even if it means spend­ing thou­sands of dol­lars.

The Marco Polo Apart­ments were built in 1971, be­fore sprin­klers be­came manda­tory for new con­struc­tion in Honolulu.

De­spite lo­cal law­mak­ers’ ef­forts to re­quire older build­ings to in­stall sprin­kler sys­tems, of­fi­cials es­ti­mate about 300 high-rises on Oahu still lack the fire preven­tion mea­sure.

Across the United States, cities have a mixed bag of laws on whether older high­rise apart­ment build­ings must in­stall fire sprin­klers that weren’t re­quired when the tow­ers were first built. Many — in­clud­ing New York, Chicago, Dal­las and San Fran­cisco — still have high-rises with­out the safety mea­sure.

Cost is of­ten cited. But af­ter Honolulu’s deadly July 14 fire, some ques­tion whether fi­nan­cial con­cerns out­weigh the po­ten­tial for tragedy.

Here’s a look at how the sprin­kler de­bate is play­ing out in sev­eral U.S. cities:

• Honolulu: In the in­ferno’s af­ter­math, Honolulu’s fire chief said sprin­klers would have con­tained the blaze to the unit where it started, pos­si­bly sav­ing the lives of those who died in nearby apart­ments. Mayor Kirk Caldwell in­tro­duced a bill a few days later that would re­quire all high-rises to have sprin­klers, even older ones.

“I don’t know what it’s go­ing to take for apart­ment own­ers as well as as­so­ci­a­tions to see the value of hu­man life,” said Hawaii state Sen. Glenn Wakai, who plans to in­tro­duce leg­is­la­tion of­fer­ing home­own­ers in­cen­tives to in­stall sprin­kler sys­tems.

The fire was not the first one at the 36-story Marco Polo build­ing — and not the first time the ques­tion of in­stalling sprin­klers has come up. Af­ter a 2013 fire, the build­ing’s as­so­ci­a­tion asked an engi­neer­ing firm for cost es­ti­mates to re­place the fire alarm sys­tem and in­stall sprin­klers.

The com­pany con­cluded it would be about $8,000 per unit to in­stall sprin­klers, or about $4.5 mil­lion for the whole build­ing. Sprin­klers were never in­stalled.

• San Fran­cisco: A pair of deadly 2015 fires in San Fran­cisco prompted city lead­ers to look at re­quir­ing au­to­matic sprin­klers in older res­i­den­tial build­ings. But the idea fal­tered af­ter land­lords and of­fi­cials raised con­cerns about the cost and lo­gis­tics.

In 1993, San Fran­cisco re­quired that high-rise com­mer­cial build­ings and tourist ho­tels be retro­fit­ted with sprin­klers, but the man­date ex­cluded res­i­den­tial and his­tor­i­cal build­ings.

• Chicago: In Chicago, a fire that killed six peo­ple at a down­town county gov­ern­ment build­ing in 2003 prompted of­fi­cials to en­act a host of safety mea­sures.

Just weeks af­ter the fire, in which vic­tims died in stair­wells af­ter doors locked be­hind them, the City Coun­cil passed an or­di­nance re­quir­ing that the doors of the high-rises re­main un­locked.

Two years later, the city passed what is called the Life Safety Eval­u­a­tion Or­di­nance, which re­quires res­i­den­tial build­ings 80 feet or higher that were built be­fore 1975 to be equipped with var­i­ous safety fea­tures such as voice com­mu­ni­ca­tion sys­tems and fire-rated doors and frames in stair­ways. But it does not re­quire them to retroac­tively in­stall sprin­klers.

The city re­quires most of its older com­mer­cial build­ings to be retro­fit­ted with sprin­klers, but not res­i­den­tial build­ings.

• New York: New York City re­quires sprin­kler sys­tems in new con­struc­tion and in older com­mer­cial tow­ers. But it man­dates res­i­den­tial high-rises to retroac­tively in­stall sprin­klers only if they un­dergo sig­nif­i­cant ren­o­va­tions or change the build­ing’s use, ac­cord­ing to the city’s Depart­ment of Build­ings.

• Dal­las: The fire depart­ment has 89 high-rise res­i­den­tial struc­tures on record, and 23 have some but not com­plete sprin­kler cov­er­age. Three res­i­den­tial high-rise build­ings in the city have no sprin­klers at all, although they met the re­quire­ments of build­ing and fire codes in ef­fect when they were con­structed. If a struc­ture’s oc­cu­pancy use stays the same, the re­quire­ments of the code un­der which it was built stand, the city said.

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