Responses to Chicago Tribune editorial on Feb. 12:Unfortunately, Chicago has a long history of tragic fires, and the attempt at making high-rise buildings safer has a drawn-out history of its own. Almost 10 years ago, former Mayor Daley and the city council passed a high-rise fire safety ordinance, but there have been no fines for non-compliance. With close to 1,000 buildings affected, those fines could have amounted to several million dollars in revenue and hastened safety upgrades.Even though Illinois adopted the 2000 edition of NFPA 101 (Life Safety Code) back in 2002, the city has ignored the still-in-effect code. However, NFPA 101 applies to Chicago per State Supreme Court precedence, because of the lack of the usual qualifier (i.e. except for cities over 500,000 in population). Instead of enforcing NFPA 101, which requires fire sprinklers or an engineered life-safety system in existing buildings, Chicago developed a custom Life Safety Evaluation (LSE), weakening the requirement so most buildings could pass the evaluation without fire sprinklers.

After the Cook County Administration building fire where six people died in 2003, the State of Illinois commissioned former FEMA Director James Lee Witt to study the code and fire in great detail. He chastised the city and state for not communicating on their respective codes and reiterated that the deaths would not have occurred if fire sprinklers were present.

In 1999, Chicago’s commissioned study of the Chicago Fire Department and the city’s codes recommended a six- to 10-year retrofit timeline for unprotected high-rises, which was promptly ignored. It also called for the city to educate citizens on the fire sprinkler concept, which also has been ignored. Even worse, public city officials disparaged fire sprinklers in fire safety presentations to residents of the John Hancock Center after its November 2015 fire.

The John Hancock Center fire occurred on the 50th floor during the daytime and injured five people, including a police officer. Fortunately, no one was killed. But had it occurred at night while residents were sleeping, the results likely would have been deadly. The John Hancock Center is an example of the shortcomings of Chicago’s LSE versus model codes. The LSE report for the residential portions of the building was approved without fire sprinkler protection. The bottom half of the building, where commercial spaces are located, is sprinklered, but the residential spaces in the top half are not protected.

During the November fire, tourists on the observation deck on the 94th floor saw the smoke from the fire and frantically rushed down the stairs, since the elevators were not in service. Due to the lack of communication, some thought back to the terrorist bombings in Paris that occurred a week earlier and believed that a similar terrorist act was occurring. Tenants also reported a lack of communication as they watched flames shoot out the building.

Eighty-five percent of fire dangers are removed with the installation of fire sprinklers and there has never been a multiple-fatality fire in a sprinklered building. Had there been fire sprinklers on the residential levels of the John Hancock Center, the fire and smoke would have been controlled and the level of panic never would have escalated. In fact, the fire probably would not have even made the news.

Retrofitting a high-rise with fire sprinklers can be done cost effectively because the infrastructure is already in place. The existing water main and fire pump are used, and fire sprinkler lines are branched off of the stairway standpipes.
Mayor Emanuel, the city council, and our local and state senators and representatives must support passage of the recent Fire Sprinkler Tax Incentive Act in Congress. It would allow building owners to write-off the cost of a retrofit in 15 years.

Let us honor those who have died Chicago high-rise fires by adopting fire sprinkler legislation to protect high-rise occupants. More than 80 residential high-rises are being retrofitted, which will make them the most marketable in Chicago. A high-rise without fire sprinklers is not a safe place to live.

Tom Lia
Executive Director
Northern Illinois Fire Sprinkler Advisory Board
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Shortly after the Chicago Tribune editorial board published an article detailing the compliance/non-compliance of Chicago residential high-rise buildings with the city’s Life Safety Evaluation (LSE), fire sprinklers controlled a fire on a residential floor of the Trump Tower. No one was injured and there was minimal fire damage. The save is a perfect example of the life and property protection benefits of fire sprinklers in residential high-rises.

Compare that with another iconic Chicago high-rise, the John Hancock Center. A candle fire on a residential floor injured five people last November, including a police officer, because there were no fire sprinklers. Three months later, the entire floor is still damaged with all residents displaced. That’s because the Hancock’s LSE compliance plan was approved without the installation of fire sprinklers on the upper residential floors. Oddly, only the commercial spaces in the bottom half of the building have sprinklers; not even the Signature Room at the 95th restaurant has fire sprinklers.

Currently, there is a glaring difference in fire protection for residents in new versus old residential high-rises because of the city’s weak LSE. The customized ordinance ignores the national model codes adopted by the state of Illinois and has allowed older buildings such as the Hancock to be unsprinklered.

While there are still dozens of residential high-rises that need to comply with the LSE, the Trump Tower sprinkler save is evidence that installing fire sprinklers is the right choice to comply and, more importantly, save lives.

New residential high-rises and the more than 80 older residential high-rises that have chosen to retrofit fire sprinklers are those that will be the most fire-safe and marketable to safety-conscious buyers and renters. Those high-rises that forgo fire sprinklers will soon be seen as dangerous and obsolete. A high-rise without fire sprinklers is not a safe place to live.

Tom Lia
Executive Director
Northern Illinois Fire Sprinkler Advisory Board