Chicago sees record-low fire deaths in 2013

BY FRAN SPIELMAN City Hall Reporter

January 7, 2014 12:52PM

Updated: January 7, 2014 4:19PM

Chicago closed the books on 2013 with 16 fire deaths — the lowest number of fire fatalities in recorded city history — thanks to smoke detectors, sprinklers and other fire safety improvements, public education and advances in emergency medical service.

In 2012, there were 27 fire deaths. During the 1960s and ‘70s, Chicago’s annual fire death toll averaged over 150. It dropped to 140.7 during the 1980’s, 89.4 during the `90’s and 42.6 during the decade ending in 2009. The deadliest year in recorded history was 1963 when 206 people died in Chicago fires. The least deadly was the 18 fire deaths recorded in 2008.

The 16 deaths recorded in 2013 set a new standard for fire safety in Chicago during a year when the Fire Department spent a record $43 million in overtime tied to a hiring freeze that allowed the city to resolve two hiring discrimination lawsuits.

Chicago Fire Department spokesman Larry Langford was not about to take too big a bow during what he called the “worst time of the year” for firefighters — exacerbated by subzero temperatures that increase the dangerous use of space heaters.

“We’ve had years where we lost multiple people in just a few fires. We were fortunate not to have any multiple fire deaths toward the end of the year,” he said.

But Langford argued that luck had less to do with the record than the increased safety provided by sprinklers and smoke detectors, public education and advances in EMS and search-and-rescue protocols.

“We think a lot of it has to do with the smoke detectors passed out by the city. The Chicago Fire Department has installed thousands of smoke detectors in the homes of senior citizens who live in high-risk areas of the South and West Sides that have historically had the greatest number of fire fatalities,” Langford said.

“We do about 10,000 presentations a year reaching out to 300,000 people educating them on fire safety. Our response times have been consistent. And many times, we find people in fires in very bad shape. But, because of the advanced life support of our EMS division, they’re able to revive, stabilize and save them.”

Fire Commissioner Jose Santiago mentioned the record low fire death toll at a news conference Monday at the city’s 911 emergency center. But, the good news got lost in a broader discussion about the record-low temperatures.

“Chicago experienced 16 fatalities due to fire in 2013, the lowest annual total ever recorded. If working smoke detectors had been in place in every building, the number of deaths in 2013 could have been much, much lower for 12 of these buildings did not have smoke detectors,” Santiago said.

Tom Ryan, president of the Chicago Firefighters Union Local 2, could not be reached for comment.

He is almost certain to use the record-low number of fire deaths as an argument against cost-cutting contract concessions proposed nearly two years ago by Mayor Rahm Emanuel.

The mayor’s plan did not include closing fire stations. But, it would alter the minimum manning requirement that triggered the bitter 1980 firefighters strike.

The current contract requires that every piece of fire apparatus be staffed by at least five employees. Emanuel’s plan calls for all “double houses” that include both engines and trucks to be staffed by nine firefighters instead of ten.

In addition, the mayor is taking aim at such treasured union perks as: holiday and duty availability pay; clothing allowance; pay grades; premium pay; non-duty lay-up coverage; the physical fitness incentive and the seven percent premium paid to cross-trained firefighter paramedics.

Emanuel also wants to covert the city’s 12 basic-life-support ambulances to advanced life support.

Chicago currently has 60 ALS ambulances, each staffed by two paramedics qualified to administer intravenous medication. ALS ambulances are stocked with drugs and equipped with heart monitoring devices.

The 12 BLS ambulances are staffed by emergency medical technicians who undergo less training. BLS ambulances do not have medicine or monitoring equipment. They are only permitted to transport patients to hospitals.

Shortly after taking office, Emanuel made it clear he planned to take a hard line in contract talks — even though his own fire commissioner was “deathly against” closing fire houses or reducing the minimum staffing requirement on fire apparatus.

Four months later, then-Fire Commissioner Robert Hoff abruptly resigned, leaving firefighters without a champion.

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.

Last summer, pressure from Gov. Pat Quinn prompted Illinois State Fire Marshal Larry Matkaitis to drop — like a hot potato — his demand that Chicago’s older high-rises be retrofitted with sprinklers.

The state fire marshal’s full retreat came just two days after high-rise residents and condominium owners packed a meeting at Roosevelt University to unleash their anger about the exorbitant expenses that they said would have been tied to the sprinkler mandate.

Twitter: @fspielman


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