Fire & Life Safety Evaluation: Fact and Fiction

Discover the truth about fire safety evaluations for high-rises and the cost-effective alternatives to sprinklers.

A few keys to passing—or failing—the city’s mandatory evaluation
By: Douglas Buhr

There is a rumor that the Honolulu Fire Department is requiring sprinklers in all high-rise buildings. I’m happy to report that rumor is false. It is true, however, that the fire department (and the former mayor) wants every high-rise to have fire sprinklers installed, but the City Council disagrees with this approach, and that is what gave birth to the Fire and Life Safety Evaluation.

The Marco Polo fire in 2017 brought to light the hidden dangers of high-rise living. Many of the current building codes were enacted to address the dangers that have been evolving in high-rises over the past 50 years. I say evolving because there are different dangers now than in the 1960s and ’70s when many of these buildings were built.
Building and fire codes evolve along with the advancements in building materials, but it is rare when a new code is applied retroactively to older buildings. Some disasters are so devastating that local governments feel compelled to act. After the deadly fire in the Marco Polo, then-Mayor Kirk Caldwell introduced a bill requiring sprinklers in all high-rises. Bill 69 eventually passed but was amended to encourage the installation of sprinklers but stopped short of mandating it.

In the place of an all-out fire sprinkler mandate, Ordinance 18-14 was passed (amended by 19-4, 20-48, 21-3 and 21-14). As amended, it requires existing high-rises not protected by an automatic fire sprinkler system to either install one or pass a Fire and Life Safety Evaluation (FLSE) and opt out of fire sprinkler coverage by a majority vote of the owners. There are two significant deadlines to the FLSE process. The deadline to submit a completed evaluation is May 2, 2022. The deadline to pass the evaluation is May 2, 2025.

Five areas are evaluated in the FLSE: compartmentation, extinguishment, egress, general occupant and firefighter safety. Points are given in each area based upon the actual conditions in the building being evaluated. An evaluation is made of things like construction materials, finishes, separation walls, exit access, smoke management, extinguishing systems, etc. A deficiency in one area can sometimes be made up by racking up points in another area.

There are a few items in the evaluation that are “deal killers,” meaning there aren’t enough points in other items to make up for the deficiency. Door stops on doors that are required to be closed is one such “deal killer.” One door stop on a unit door will make the whole building fail. Another “deal killer” is a non-compliant fire alarm system.
These are the two items most often found when doing evaluations. Door stops are easily removed. The fire alarm system is a different story.

The main feature of a fire alarm system is that it notifies residents of the need to evacuate. Proper notification requires that the system be heard in every room in the building. Old-fashioned bell systems do not do that job. We have done testing on old bell and horn systems and found that a 95-decibel signal in the hallway does not even register on the sound meter in the bedroom of an adjacent unit. This is not acceptable and is the driving force behind the need for replacement of these old systems.

The new systems being installed are voice-evacuation style, meaning that there is a tone and a voice message. This is advantageous in that specific instructions can be given to direct residents if required. This system can also double as an announcement system for any other purpose, from a tsunami warning to the start of a party on the recreation deck.

The evaluation itself is straightforward to a seasoned professional, and there are some areas where professional judgement must be exercised. It is these areas that make the difference in the outcome of the evaluation. A good example of this is the requirement that a building not have any vertical openings between floors. The evaluation gives four choices for the evaluator to choose from:
– Open four or more floors.
– Open two or three floors.
– Enclosed with less than one-hour fire resistance.
– Enclosed with greater than one hour fire resistance.

It has been our professional judgment (backed by the concurrence of people who were involved in devising the evaluation) that a pipe that penetrates a floor and is enclosed in a wall, is enclosed with less than one-hour fire resistance earning it 0 points. Zero points can easily be overcome by achieving extra points from other systems. We have seen professional judgement that says a pipe enclosed in a wall that is not fire stopped at each floor is a vertical opening of four or more floors, earning it a negative 14 points. You can see that this very conservative approach guarantees the failure of the evaluation.

It is our experience, after evaluating over 100 buildings, that every building can indeed pass the Fire and Life Safety Evaluation for a fraction of the cost of installing fire sprinklers. We have also heard there is overwhelming support from unit owners in opting out. The votes that we have seen were over 95% in favor of opting out.

There is a choice for residential high-rise condo boards to make, either commit to installing a fire sprinkler system or opt out and pass the Fire and Life Safety Evaluation. Installing fire sprinklers improves safety but at significant cost. The Fire and Life Safety Evaluation has its shortcomings, but passing it greatly improves safety at a fraction of the cost to unit owners. Our experience, like the majority of unit owners, points to opting for the less expensive option. What will your association decide?

Douglas Buhr is president of Douglas Engineering Pacific Inc., which has performed over 100 Fire and Life Safety Evaluations and designed over 150 fire alarm systems in the past 29 years. He has experience in performing fire source investigations and has qualified as an expert witness in fire alarm installation and electrical safety. or (808) 687-6870

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