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Ald. Reilly blasts proposal to require sprinklers in old high-rises

Ald. Brendan Reilly

Ald. Brendan Reilly

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Updated: August 17, 2013 6:29AM

Downtown Ald. Brendan Reilly (42nd) sounded the alarm Monday about a proposed change in the state’s fire code that, the alderman fears, could have a “disastrous fiscal impact” on Chicago homeowners, condo associations and businesses.

In a newsletter emailed to his constituents, Reilly condemned Illinois State Fire Marshal Larry Matkaitis for proposing that sprinkler systems be installed “retroactively” in all high-rise buildings — including the 759 built before 1975.

Reilly noted that the proposed changes would also require sprinklers in all newly constructed single-family homes and multi-unit residential buildings; existing homes where more than half the square footage is renovated; new religious buildings seating more than 300; and bars, dance halls, nightclubs and assembly spaces with “festival seating” areas greater than 700 square feet.

Apartment buildings at least four stories tall with 11 or more units would be required to install fire alarm systems with “manual pull stations” that would automatically notify the Chicago Fire Department, the alderman said.

Reilly denounced the proposed changes as a “one-size-fits-all” approach that “ignores new fire prevention technologies and alternatives to expensive sprinkler retrofits.”

He urged his constituents to contact the 12 state lawmakers on the Joint Committee on Administrative Rules that must approve the changes. The deadline for public comment is Aug. 12.

“These onerous new regulations could have a disastrous impact on Chicago homeowners, condo associations and businesses” the alderman wrote, noting that Mayor Rahm Emanuel’s Law Department considers the changes a violation of Chicago’s home-rule powers.

“The prohibitively high costs associated with sprinklering such buildings or undergoing duplicative life safety evaluation requiring additional or different upgrades which may include sprinklering will fall entirely on building owners and occupants through increased rents or special condominium assessments.”

Reilly further contended that installing sprinkler systems in “vintage” Chicago buildings could impair “the local architectural integrity and aesthetics of these buildings, many of which have landmark status or are of historic significance.”

Matkaitis, a former Chicago Fire Department paramedic, argued that home-rule would apply — only if Chicago adopted a fire code that was more restrictive than the state’s version, not less.

“Sprinklers save lives. ... My job is to save lives and property for 13 million people all over the state. The last time we updated our fire code was 12 years ago. Every once in a while, we have to upgrade,” Matkaitis said.

The fire marshal noted that a woman died in an elevator eighteen months ago in a fire at a high-rise building at 3130 N. Lake Shore with no sprinklers.

“Two-thousand degrees hit her right in the face and incinerated her. They had 20 major fire code violations,” he said.

“They asked us [to give them] six years to put sprinklers in, at least in hallways and common areas. They did not have to go into apartments. If these building owners come to us, we can show them minimum-cost ways to bring their buildings up to code.”

Matkaitis rejected Reilly’s warning about a “disastrous fiscal impact” on homeowners and businesses, saying some will be able avoid sprinklers if they make other life-saving changes that meet the state’s standards.

“If these buildings have put all this stuff in, they’re that good and they can pass our fire safety evaluation, they won’t have to put in sprinklers,” the fire marshal said.

A source in the city’s Law Department argued that there is “ no dispute” about whether Chicago has home rule authority to enact its own building and fire code.

The only question is whether the state can also regulate and enforce its own standards in Chicago.

“According to the Fire Investigations Act, the Office of the State Fire Marshal can only do so when its regulations are reasonable and necessary,” the source said.

“When it comes to requiring sprinkler systems in pre-1975 buildings, we believe this is neither reasonable nor necessary, and therefore we do not think OSFM has the authority to require it.”

In 2004, Chicago’s older commercial high-rises were given 12 years to install sprinklers. Residential buildings were given the option of making less-costly “life safety” improvements, such as enclosing stairwells, by 2012.

It was a bitter disappointment to relatives of the six people who died in the Oct. 17, 2003, fire at the Cook County Administration Building at 69 W. Washington. The relatives wanted a sweeping sprinkler mandate with no exceptions and fewer delays.

“It’s a joke. They’re giving ’em 12 years. . . . That’s horrible,” said Tom McDonald, whose sister, Maureen, died in the fire.

If his sister were alive today, McDonald said, “She’d be [saying], Typical city politics.’ We know how the game is played. [The motive is] money. It’s gonna cost people too much money. I say, it’s gonna cost people’s lives. Maureen’s gone. We’ve got to worry about the people who are living.”

Survivor Christine Konopka added, “Residential [buildings] are very important. You’ve got the older ones on Lake Shore Drive. You’ve got older people living in those high-rises. They’re more apt to have fires . . . They’re the ones who are gonna suffer . . . A lot of people are in jeopardy.”

Then- Buildings Committee Chairman Bernard Stone (50th) countered that sprinklers are “one tool among many” — not a “cure-all or panacea.” Since World War II, fewer than 60 people have died in residential high-rise fires here — less than one victim a year, he said.

“I’m tired of listening to somebody who doesn’t have to pick up the tab,” said Stone, who as a condo owner will help foot the bill.

The “life-safety” deadline was subsequently pushed back to 2015 to assist owners struggling to pay for the changes.

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