Illustration of Lorraine Carli
Author(s): Lorraine Carli. Published on February 24, 2023.

Get the Cogs Moving

A residential sprinkler struggle in Hawaii illustrates the value of the NFPA Fire & Life Safety Ecosystem 

In July 2017, a seven-alarm fire ripped through the Marco Polo condo high-rise in Honolulu, Hawaii. The 36-story building was not sprinklered, and the blaze killed four people and injured many more. For decades, the city had explored mandating sprinkler retrofits to bring older buildings like the Marco Polo up to current safety codes—the building was completed in 1971, four years before the city began requiring sprinklers—but the measures were continually abandoned due to cost concerns and pressure from policymakers. According to local news reports, a 2005 survey of residential buildings in Honolulu indicated it would cost about $2.5 million to sprinkler the roughly 570 units in the Marco Polo; by comparison, the 2017 fire destroyed or damaged more than 100 units at a cost of over $100 million. In late 2021, the Marco Polo completed the installation of sprinklers throughout the units and common areas at a cost of about $6 million.

The Marco Polo is a good illustration of how the NFPA Fire & Life Safety Ecosystem™ can be applied to help us better understand a range of safety issues, and to help reduce loss from fire and other hazards. The ecosystem was unveiled in 2018, in part as a response to a series of recent incidents with devastating consequences, including the Marco Polo fire. The ecosystem is designed as a holistic approach to safety and is built on eight interconnected cogs, including policymakers setting the right regulatory framework; jurisdictions using the most updated codes and standards; the need to apply all of the standards, including referenced standards; prioritizing safety across the board; promoting the development of skilled workers in the design, installation, inspection, and ongoing maintenance of buildings and other structures; supporting effective code enforcement; providing effective preparedness and response capabilities; and educating the public on the dangers posed by these hazards. Every cog is essential; if elements of the ecosystem are missing or ignored, tragedies can occur.

The larger story of the Marco Polo includes ecosystem successes, such as the installation of sprinklers in the complex. Newer efforts on the island of Oahu, where Honolulu is located, also reflect successes, including an ordinance that requires buildings to pass a fire safety evaluation; if they can’t pass, they must be retrofitted with sprinklers. But ecosystem failures are also on display. Nearly 300 buildings in Honolulu 75 feet or taller have failed the mandated safety evaluation and are pushing back on sprinkler installations, leaving thousands of residents at risk of loss should a fire occur. According to media accounts, not only do some of these buildings lack sprinklers, they also lack adequate means of egress, have blocked exits, and include doors that don’t close properly—all severe deficiencies in the event of a fire. Greg Harrington, an NFPA principal engineer, told the media that the described scenarios “make a bad situation worse.”

In the latest twist to this tale, the effort to sprinkler more buildings in Honolulu is now being buoyed by the rising cost of insuring unsprinklered buildings and the lessons learned from Marco Polo, which are, simply, that sprinklers save lives and reduce property loss. Local media report that there are currently about 10 additional buildings indicating they will move forward with sprinkler installations—an important ecosystem success.
We know tragic events often drive change. But that doesn’t always need to be the case. Oahu’s move toward improving building fire safety, while progress, is only one small step toward addressing the overall problem. In Honolulu and across the globe, everyone who plays a role in the fire and life safety ecosystem shouldn’t wait for another tragedy to take action to get the cogs moving together. Lives depend on it.

Lorraine Carli is vice president of Outreach and Advocacy for NFPA. Illustration: Michael Hoeweler