The recent fatal fire at 3130 N Lake Shore Drive may not shrink from view as quickly as it might have in light of two new wrinkles. First there was the announcement that the victim’s family intends to file a wrongful death lawsuit against the building owner and presumably the fleeing neighbors that propped the door open. Second, the “Home Rule” showdown created by the IL State Fire Marshal citing the building owner for 19 state fire code violations. These developments are significant. Both instances challenge the autonomy of the City of Chicago and its resulting ability to quietly restore status quo. Up until 2004, the typical response to a fatal high rise fire in Chicago included much bluster but little else. Action finally did come in 2004 when the City Council passed the High Rise Substitute Ordinance adding Chapter 13-196 to the Chicago Municipal Code, creating new fire safety requirements for buildings over eighty feet tall. Unfortunately, that was followed by little enforcement culminating in December 2011 with the City Council voting to extend the Life Safety Evaluation (LSE) deadline for three more years, citing economic hardship. That unanimous vote may bring another, little known aspect to light; the actual LSE adopted by the City of Chicago is a unique document that over-values “compartmentation” relative to the nationally recognized LSE used everywhere else. This creates an avenue for residential high rise owners to avoid the expense of fire sprinklers in favor of passive protection measures which do not put the fire out. Sadly there is at least one documented case of a residential high rise that experienced a fatal fire several years ago. They did comply with the LSE requirement, but decided to install a new voice communication system to come into compliance instead of sprinklers…then experienced a second fatal fire in 2010. Stay tuned as the Chicago and national media begin to recognize a concept whose time has come.
Archive for January, 2012
In December of 2004, the Chicago City Council accomplished a monumental task; they amended the Chicago Municipal Code to improve fire safety in buildings over 80’ tall. The Substitute Ordinance as it was called added new Chapter 13-196 which prescribed many steps to be taken, timeframes for compliance and stiff fines for noncompliance. Seven years later, it is unclear to what extent compliance has occurred since the city has revealed little of that information, but some insight may be gained from a recent 49-0 City Council vote last month extending the deadline for compliance by three years citing economic hardship.
What if instead Chicago had enforced the Fines and Penalties section of the ordinance from the beginning, before times really got tough? The $500 to $1,000 per day per building revenue stream should have been attractive yet was seemingly avoided altogether. Would adopting a punitive attitude have changed the landscape enough to render life safety upgrades attractive? Would there be one less victim today?
It is sad that the only time this issue sees the light of day is immediately following another fire fatality in a high rise building. The City Council’s unanimous vote leaves no political cover for anything but regrets. The day after the most recent fatality at 3130 N. Lake Shore Drive, Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel urged affected building owners with this statement, “I expect you to use this time to put in place a sprinkler system and the safety and security systems you need. … I don’t expect you to use the time all the way to the end.” Let’s all pray that it happens that way. The public has a short memory and it will be business as usual all too soon.