Records show high-rise had out­dated alarms

The Maui News - - FRONT PAGE - By CATHY BUSSEWITZ, The As­so­ci­ated Press

HONOLULU — A Honolulu high-rise con­do­minium build­ing where a blaze this month killed three peo­ple failed to up­date its fire alarms to meet safety stan­dards de­spite an en­gi­neer­ing firm rec­om­mend­ing the changes af­ter an­other fire four years ago, city records show.

The As­so­ci­ated Press ac­quired the en­gi­neer­ing firm’s 2013 re­port, which found fire alarms in the 36-story com­plex did not meet the city’s fire code be­cause they were not loud enough and did not have flash­ing lights. The firm rec­om­mended re­plac­ing the sys­tem.

The res­i­den­tial tower built in 1971 was not re­quired, how­ever, to meet the stan­dards be­cause they were not part of the fire code at that time, so prop­erty man­agers broke no laws. Sev­eral res­i­dents said they had trou­ble hear­ing the fire alarms dur­ing the July 14 fire, and fire safety ex­perts say those warn­ings are cru­cial to sav­ing lives.

The Honolulu Fire Depart­ment de­clined to re­lease its in­spec­tion records for the Marco Polo build­ing, cit­ing the on­go­ing in­ves­ti­ga­tion. An AP re­view of per­mits filed with the city’s Depart­ment of Plan­ning and Per­mit­ting re­vealed that build­ing man­agers never ap­plied for per­mits to up­grade the sys­tem.

The city fol­lows the Na­tional Fire Pro­tec­tion As­so­ci­a­tion’s 2012 stan­dards, which re­quire new build­ings to have alarms that are loud enough to be heard in apart­ments, strobe lights or other visual aids in­stalled in com­mon ar­eas, and hall­ways with smoke de­tec­tors.

Honolulu only re­quires older build­ings to bring their alarm sys­tems up to code dur­ing a ma­jor ren­o­va­tion, said Cur­tis Lum, spokesman for the plan­ning depart­ment.

Build­ing man­agers com­mis­sioned a fire safety as­sess­ment by the en­gi­neer­ing firm S.S. Dan­n­away af­ter the 2013 fire. It found that fire alarms within the apart­ments were not loud enough and rec­om­mended adding speak­ers to the main liv­ing ar­eas and bed­rooms of ev­ery unit.

It also said that the sys­tem did not have visual trig­gers in hall­ways or com­mon ar­eas and didn’t de­tect smoke in hall­ways.

“You have to have a work­ing fire alarm sys­tem that can no­tify the oc­cu­pants in the event of a fire,” said Sa­muel Dan­n­away, lead au­thor of the re­port and now vice pres­i­dent of fire pro­tec­tion tech­nol­ogy with Coff­man Engi­neers. “It’s ex­tremely im­por­tant. It’s so ba­sic to what we do, es­pe­cially in these very tall build­ings.”

His re­port rec­om­mended re­plac­ing the sys­tem at a cost of $1.2 mil­lion, but that never hap­pened. It also sug­gested adding a sprinkler sys­tem for $4.5 mil­lion, which also was not done but isn’t re­quired of older build­ings in Hawaii and many other places.

Af­ter this month’s fire, Honolulu Mayor Kirk Cald­well in­tro­duced a mea­sure to re­quire res­i­den­tial high-rises to in­stall sprinkler sys­tems and have au- di­ble fire alarms through­out the build­ing.

Sev­eral res­i­dents who es­caped the Marco Polo blaze, which broke out on the 26th floor, said they didn’t re­al­ize they were in dan­ger un­til they opened their doors.

“It didn’t sound quite like a nor­mal, tra­di­tional fire alarm,” said Air Force cy­ber tech­ni­cian Cory La Roe, who lives on the 5th floor, adding that there were no an­nounce­ments or flash­ing lights af­ter the fire ig­nited.

Gor­don Ki­hune, who has lived in the build­ing for about 12 years, said he didn’t hear the alarms un­til he opened his apart­ment door on the 13th floor. He said he has a hear­ing prob­lem and there were no lights for peo­ple who are hear­ing im­paired.

An­gela Kim, who lives on the 30th floor, said that she can only hear the sirens if her apart­ment door is open.

Michael An­der­son, a res­i­dent of the 17th floor, said that he has heard alarms and seen flash­ing lights at the end of the hall­way dur­ing fire drills.

“If peo­ple on the fire floor didn’t hear the alarm, that would be a yel­low or red flag for the in­ves­ti­ga­tors,” said Robert Solomon, a fire pro­tec­tion en­gi­neer with the Na­tional Fire Pro­tec­tion As­so­ci­a­tion.

The or­ga­ni­za­tion sets safety stan­dards for lo­cal, state and fed­eral ju­ris­dic­tions to adopt. It says high-rises, es­pe­cially those without sprinkler sys­tems, should have alarm sys­tems with loud sirens, flash­ing lights, a voice an­nounce­ment sys­tem for fire­fight­ers to guide evac­u­a­tions and self-clos­ing doors to help pre­vent flames from spread­ing.

The as­so­ci­a­tion’s guide­lines do not re­quire up­dated fire alarms in older build­ings to bring them up to code un­less the sys­tem is so old that re­place­ment parts can­not be found or other prob­lems lead fire de­part­ments to man­date it, Solomon said.

Dan­n­away said that his firm in­spected sev­eral other Honolulu high-rise build­ings with old fire alarm sys­tems and “all of them have that same au­di­bil­ity prob­lem.”

Asked whether the Marco Polo high-rise had made any of the changes rec­om­mended in 2013, An­drew Fortin, a spokesman for As­so­cia Hawaii, which man­ages the build­ing, said that he could not com­ment be­cause the ques­tions were the sub­ject of the on­go­ing in­ves­ti­ga­tion.

Honolulu Fire Capt. David Jenk­ins said he could not an­swer for the same rea­son.

Long­time Marco Polo res­i­dent Thomas Sch­midt, who lives on the 26th floor close to where the fire started, said that many apart­ments have lou­vered doors with hor­i­zon­tal slats that al­low ocean breezes to cool the units, but he said those doors may have con­trib­uted to the fire’s spread.

“I’m ab­so­lutely over­whelmed with joy that I’m still here, be­cause my neigh­bors across the hall are all dead,” said Sch­midt, 74. “If we had been home, I might have got burned up in the fire, too.”

AP photo

Fire dam­age is see at the Marco Polo on Thurs­day. build­ing in Honolulu

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