2014

Fire Sprinkler Advisory Board Questions High-Rise Fire Safety Ten Years After Deadly Cook County Administration Building Fire

ORLAND PARK, Ill., Oct. 17, 2013 /PRNewswire/ -- Ten years have passed since six people died in a high-rise fire that did not have fire sprinklers at the Cook County Administration Building, 69 W. Washington, October 17, 2003. The City has since established additional fire- and life-safety measures to prevent future tragedies in commercial high-rise buildings. The nonprofit Northern Illinois Fire Sprinkler Advisory Board (NIFSAB) questions the safety of occupants who live in residential high-rise buildings that were built before fire sprinklers were required in building codes.

Following the Cook County Administration Building fire, retired Judge Abner Mikva was commissioned by Cook County to investigate and issue a report. Meanwhile, James Lee Witt Associates was commissioned by the State of Illinois to conduct an independent review. Both reports concluded that fire sprinklers could have prevented the six deaths and recommended that the City of Chicago adopt an ordinance requiring fire sprinklers in all commercial and residential high-rise buildings.

In 2004, the City of Chicago passed an ordinance requiring all commercial buildings be retrofitted with fire sprinkler systems. To keep projects on track, the City instituted a three-phase compliance timeline with one-third of each building protected by January 1, 2009, two-thirds protected by January 1, 2013, and fully sprinklered by January 1, 2017.

That same ordinance also required all residential buildings built prior to 1975 that do not have fire sprinklers to pass a City of Chicago Life Safety Evaluation (LSE). The City's LSE process reviews the existing life-safety features in residential high-rises and establishes commitments to repair deficiencies. According to the Chicago LSE, all residential high-rises must have one- or two-way communication systems and doors/corridors that are fire-rated for one hour. But to fully comply, additional measures may need to be taken, many of which are intrusive to occupants. By installing fire sprinklers, however, buildings can bypass those additional measures entirely.

Tom Lia, executive director of NIFSAB, said he commends Chicago for moving forward with the fire sprinkler requirement in commercial high-rise buildings. "At least those six lives that were lost will not be in vain. The terrible tragedy did make most commercial high-rise buildings safer for the thousands of people who work in Chicago," he said.

Lia said unfortunately the same is not true for residential high-rise buildings where data from the National Fire Protection Association (NFPA) and U.S. Fire Administration report that more fire deaths occur. The concern is that the Chicago LSE requirements are less stringent than those in national model codes. The weaknesses in the LSE were evident following a fire on the thirty-sixth floor of the residential high-rise building at 260 East Chestnut on December 10, 2009. An 84-year-old woman died in the fire because the residential high-rise had passed its LSE but was not required to install fire sprinklers.

The national model code, NFPA 101: Life Safety Code, has been adopted in major U.S. cities such as Boston and Philadelphia, and calls for an engineered life-safety system or fire sprinkler system in both commercial and residential high-rises. While the State of Illinois enacted the 2000 edition of NFPA 101 and the code's fire sprinkler requirements in 2002, Chicago claims home rule, allowing it to follow its own fire codes instead of State code requirements and countering the recommendations from the James Lee Witt Report.

"Instead the City continues to stand by its weak LSE requirements but has failed to maintain enforcement of its own LSE process," Lia said. "Therefore, the City had to extend its compliance deadline from January 1, 2013, to January 1, 2015, when it was discovered just months before the deadline that most buildings had barely even begun the multiyear process. In the meantime, tragic fires continue to injure and take the lives of occupants in residential high-rises that are not in compliance with the City's LSE," he added.

Lia said he also commends Cook County for completing the installation of a fire sprinkler system in the Cook County Administration Building one year after the deadly fire. The City also retrofit the Daley Center with a fire sprinkler system and is in the process of retrofitting City Hall. However, there still remain hundreds of residential high-rise buildings that fall below today's national codes whether because they have failed to stay on track with the City's LSE timeline or because the LSE has allowed those residential high-rises to remain without fire sprinkler protection.

About the Northern Illinois Fire Sprinkler Advisory Board (NIFSAB)
NIFSAB is a nonprofit organization dedicated to promoting progressive legislation, raising public awareness, and educating code officials and governmental policy makers by demonstrating the proven performance of fire sprinklers in saving both lives and property. For more info, visit www.firesprinklerassoc.org.

SOURCE Northern Illinois Fire Sprinkler Advisory Board (NIFSAB)



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