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.