Fire Sprinklers Eighty Feet Up; A Concept Who’s Time Has Come

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.