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Proposed fire code ignites major controversy among Chicago building owners

Illinois State Fire Marshal Larry Matkaitis.  Credit:  OSFM

Illinois State Fire Marshal Larry Matkaitis. Credit: OSFM

Controversy continues to boil as the Illinois Office of the State Fire Marshal (OSFM) pushes for a fire code update that could have considerable financial impact on Chicago condo, home and building owners.

Proposing an update to Illinois’ 12-year-old NFPA 101: Life Safety Code, Illinois Fire Marshal Larry Matkaitis recently tendered a rules change to the Joint Committee on Administrative Rules (JCAR) that calls for additional and, in some cases, pricey safety features, including a statute that mandates sprinkler systems in buildings at least four stories tall with 11 or more units.

While Illinois’ Life Safety Code has remained largely stagnant for well over a decade, support for the update is facing turbulence in the Chicago area. Major clashes between provisions in the OSFM’s new code and Chicago’s own Life Safety & High Rise Ordinance have sent condo associations, building owners and city aldermen in a tailspin over skyrocketing costs for, what many believe, are non-essential safety measures.

Currently, Chicago only mandates sprinkler systems in buildings built after 1975. The city’s Life Safety & High Rise Ordinance exempts residential high-rises built before 1975 from retrofitting sprinklers. Instead, Chicago keeps safety features up to snuff by requiring owners of sprinkler-less dwellings to submit a Life Safety Evaluation that keeps pre-1975 high-rises in check.

However, much to the dismay of Chicago’s building owners, provisions in the OSFM’s updated code mandate sprinkler systems in all newly constructed single-family homes and multi-unit buildings—hotly contradicting Chicago’s current rules and regulations for residential dwellings.

“We believe it’s the right time,” said Michael Falese, chief of the Bartlett Fire Department and president of the Illinois Fire Chief’s Association, in an NBC Chicago article. “The sprinkler initiative in homes is aimed at the preservation of life.” Matkaitis agrees in a Chicago Sun-Times article, saying, “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.”

But local condo associations, high-rise property owners and a handful of city aldermen aren’t convinced. With 1,100 residential pre-1975 high-rises in the city of Chicago, building owners and their representatives are flinching at the expense, saying sprinklers could cost anywhere between $11,000 to $35,000 per unit.

While Matkaitis assures owners there are ways to avoid sprinklers by implementing other life-safety features, constituents and aldermen fear structural changes of any kind will be fiscally detrimental to both owners and renters.

Believing that blanket upgrades to Chicago’s diverse set of buildings are costly and not the right fit for local communities, Rep. Kelly Cassidy, Dist. 14, said, “Dozens of constituents have come to me saying the required expenses would force them from their homes. This expensive, top-down proposal that ignores the unique needs of different communities is not the way to go.”

The idea that different neighborhoods require different regulations has those against the new code jumping on the defense and declaring home-rule authority—a statute that grants municipalities with more than 25,000 residents the power to handle municipal matters without Springfield’s input. Under home rule, the city of Chicago would be immune to Matkaitis’ proposal, but whether or not it applies is still up for debate.

In a Chicago Sun-Times article, Matkaitis argues home rule would only apply if Chicago’s fire code was more restrictive than the state’s, not less. But restrictive is a relative term.

Association of Sheridan Road Condo/Co-Op Owners (ASCO) President Sheli Lulkin stands by home-rule authority, arguing “There is a big difference between buildings in a small town and buildings in Chicago. We have a three-minute response time (in emergencies), small towns might have a 25-minute response time,” said Lulkin. “Our buildings are mostly made of concrete and brick, which can hold longer than three minutes.”

With an average of one fire-related death in high-rises per year, Lulkin believes Chicago buildings are already subject to stringent enough fire regulations. As a condo owner herself, Lulkin has previously spent $500k on upgrading her building to better comply with the city of Chicago’s life safety ordinance.

Lulkin also reminds residents and owners that the OSFN’s new code doesn’t just concern sprinkler systems, it also requires the installation of building-wide carbon monoxide detectors, hallway pull-alarms and reconstructed stairwells outfitted with ventilation systems—all measures that have the potential to save lives but at the same time drain pocketbooks.

Nonetheless, the price for safety upgrades is just that, a price. While some see the proposed code as overly rigorous and fiscally paralyzing, supporters view it as a way to protect cities and their citizens.

In an NBC Chicago article, National Fire Protection Association President James Shannon notes, “Chicago should be the leader on this (sprinkler mandate). This is probably the greatest architectural city in America. These are great buildings. They should be protected. But more importantly, the people who live in them should be protected.”

The deadline for public comment to the JCAR ends Aug. 12, 2013. The group will meet in September 2013 to discuss the proposal, and will decide whether or not to vote at that time. To weigh in on the issue, Rep. Cassidy will be holding a town hall Wed. July 31 at 6:30 P.M. in Loyola’s Cuneo Hall with Ald. Osterman, Ald. Moore, Ald. James Cappleman, State Sen. Heather Steans and State Rep. Greg Harris.



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