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With nudge from Quinn, fire marshal drops demand that older high-rises get sprinklers

State Fire Marshal Larry Matkaitis 2010 | Sun-Times Medifiles

State Fire Marshal Larry Matkaitis in 2010 | Sun-Times Media files

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Updated: September 4, 2013 6:11AM

With a nudge from Gov. Pat Quinn, Illinois State Fire Marshal Larry Matkaitis on Friday dropped — like a hot potato — his demand that Chicago’s older high-rises be retrofitted with sprinklers.

He was trying to put out a firestorm of controversy about the cost.

“We have received an unprecedented amount of public input and suggestions through emails, letters and public meetings,” Matkaitis was quoted as saying in a brief statement released by his office.

“In the course of this process, it’s become clear that any proposed state rule needs additional refinement. Therefore, I am officially withdrawing the proposed rule before the Joint Committee on Administrative Rules to take into account substantial public comment and carefully re-examine this issue.”

Matkaitis could not be reached for comment. He is a former Chicago Fire Department paramedic whose proposal drew fire from his former colleagues all the way up to city Fire Commissioner Jose Santiago.

The state fire marshal’s full retreat comes 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 say would have been tied to the sprinkler mandate.

The meeting descended into angry shouting when it was announced that Matkaitis would not be attending.

Aldermen Brendan Reilly (42nd), Michele Smith (43rd) and Bob Fioretti (2nd) led the charge against a mandate affecting Chicago’s 759 pre-1975 high-rises that, they contend, could force “massive rent hikes” and condominium assessments as high as $35,000 a unit.

Reilly said Chicago homeowners are directly responsible for the state fire marshal’s reversal.

They organized an “incredible, organic, grass-roots effort” that flooded Matkaitis’ and the governor’s offices with emails, letters and phone calls, Reilly said.

“Gov. Quinn deserves credit for these rules being shelved. He listened to his Chicago constituents and, I believe, had a direct conversation with the fire marshal. For that, I’m grateful,” said Reilly, who said he spoke to Quinn about the issue on Thursday.

Fioretti said on Friday that the state fire marshal “made a wise decision” when he “came to his senses” in response to the public outcry.

“The rules could have been well-intentioned, but they would have bankrupted many condominium associations. I had numbers upwards of $15 million to retrofit some condo complexes, including Sandburg Village,” Fioretti said.

“It would have turned them into pure ghost cities. People could not afford it. They wouldn’t have been able to afford the assessment and rent increases. They would have had to leave. These rules would have been an economic disaster for Chicago.”

Fioretti noted that a 2005 study by Princeton University pegged the cost to the owner of a one-bedroom apartment at $29,000. He also pointed to the dramatic drop in fire deaths in Chicago — from 185 in 1980 to 28 last year.

“That tells me our comprehensive fire regulations [without sprinklers in older high-rises] have been working,” he said.

Smith had called it an “illegal violation” of Chicago’s home-rule authority that is “totally unnecessary” to protect high-rise residents.

The proposed changes would have required 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 have been required to install fire alarm systems with “manual pull stations” that would automatically notify the Chicago Fire Department, Smith said.

“These proposals would not only dramatically increase costs for high-rises, but also single family homeowners, apartment building owners and businesses. We must join together to fight this,” the alderman wrote.

Although fire safety is paramount, Reilly said what the fire marshal failed to recognize is “all of the other measures we take in Chicago” to protect older buildings.

“The one-size-fits-all approach didn’t necessarily fit here in Chicago. Our life safety evaluation process and retrofits make these buildings as safe as they would be with sprinklers,” Reilly said.

“My real concern was these condo associations have just finished spending hundreds of thousands, if not millions, of dollars on those life-safety retrofits. The prospect of having to make, yet another massive investment in sprinklers could literally force some residents to move out of their homes.”

The governor’s press secretary Brooke Anderson confirmed that, after talking with aldermen, Quinn did “advise the fire marshal that, clearly, there was more work to do” on the sprinkler mandate.

“Legitimate concerns have been raised by residents and local officials. The governor felt the best way to go forward was to continue to hear them out and work with them. That’s what the fire marshal is doing,” Anderson said.

Last month, Matkaitis made no apologies for the strict new standards he was seeking.

“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 18 months ago in a fire at an unsprinklered high-rise building at 3130 N. Lake Shore Drive.

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

As for aldermanic warnings about the financial hardship, Matkaitis said, “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.”

A trade group representing the sprinkler industry has accused Chicago aldermen and others of scaring their constituents into opposing the state fire marshal’s now shelved sprinkler mandate by grossly overestimating the cost of retrofitting older high-rises.

Tom Lia, executive director of the Northern Illinois Fire Sprinkler Advisory Board (NIFSAB), has noted that most pre-1975 buildings have the “basic infrastructure in place” to support sprinklers, including water supply, standpipes and fire pumps. The standpipes simply need to be tapped and extended to tenant units, Lia said in a news release.

High-rise residents may also get insurance benefits if sprinklers are installed in common areas and individual units, he said. The fire marshal’s mandate would have given older high-rises 12 years to comply with the sprinkler mandate.

“These groups [lobbying against the change] are claiming the costs are three to four times higher than the actual completion costs documented by fire sprinkler contractors who have recently retrofit high-rise buildings here in Chicago at $4 to $8 per square foot,” Lia was quoted as saying.

Lia noted that “dozens” of U.S. cities — including New York, Los Angeles, Atlanta and Houston — already require sprinklers in older high-rise buildings.

“A fire in a high-rise building without fire sprinklers is one of the most dangerous calls. It can be difficult for firefighters to reach the upper floors since the highest fire ladder in Chicago only extends eight floors for effective exterior rescues. Above that, firefighters must solely use stairs and elevators while carrying fire hoses and other heavy equipment. It’s time for people to hear the facts. We need to do what’s right so that no more fire deaths occur in Illinois.”

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.

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