Life Safety in Chicago High Rise Structures; Where We Stand

November 5, 2014 -

After the showdown in the summer of 2013 between the Illinois State Fire Marshal and certain elected representatives over the code adoption process in Illinois, many thought the battle over high rise life safety was over. Chicago high rise dwellers did not understand that the statewide minimum code is a separate issue from the Chicago Life Safety ordinance passed in 2004 and after a three year extension is finally coming due January 1st, 2015.

Background on the origin of the ordinance:

The Chicago Building Code (CBC) has always relied on the concept of fire-rated separation, or compartmentalization, to contain the fire to the room of origin. In 1975 the CBC was modified to recognize the installation of fire sprinklers in lieu of compartmentalization in all buildings over eighty feet in height. Due to cost and convenience, the alternative was quickly adopted as the new standard for high rise construction.

In 2004, after many devastating high rise fires in Chicago, Alderman Ed Burke introduced legislation that would require fire sprinkler retrofit of all high rises lacking them. Then Mayor Daley proposed an alternative plan which was ultimately approved instead. Daley's so called "Life Safety Ordinance" provided alternatives to Burke's mandatory retrofit requirement for residential high rises but retained it for commercial high rises.

What's an LSE?

Integral to the new ordinance was the Life Safety Evaluation form, or LSE. Unfortunately, the document was constructed in a manner that differed from the nationally recognized format . These differences created a route to less expensive compliance relying upon passive fire protection measures in lieu of fire sprinklers. This misguided decision was driven by economic factors brought to bear by realtors and building owners. The consequence of which was tragically demonstrated by a second fatal fire at 260 E. Chestnut, which occurred after that building successfully passed its LSE!

Knowing that fire sprinkler retrofit ensures LSE compliance, the CBC was modified to include some smart incentives for encouraging fire sprinkler retrofit. The existing fire pump and standpipe infrastructure put in place at the time of construction for manual firefighting, even in the pre-1975 structures, may now be repurposed to provide the basis for a fire sprinkler system retrofit. This represents an enormous yet likely underappreciated savings.

Where are we now?

It has now been more than ten years since the Chicago City Council adopted the Life Safety ordinance. Despite the efforts made to lessen the economic impact to the building owners, the rate of compliance has been slow and the rate of enforcement nonexistent as noted recently in an NBC5 investigative report. The adopted ordinance included provisions for citing noncompliance at a rate of $1,000 to $2,500 per building, per day, yet the Chicago Building Department chose to leave millions uncollected in times when the economy could hardly have been worse.

CBC Section 13-196-206, Life Safety Evaluation of existing high rise buildings, is currently in the spotlight. The original ordinance required that every high rise owner complete an LSE, submit a plan for compliance then come into compliance no later than January 1st 2012. But in the waning weeks of December 2011, in light of such dismal participation, the Chicago City Council extended the deadline three years. Reaction by 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."

Guess what? That extended deadline now arrives on January 1st 2015 and many high rises have either not filed an LSE or have not executed the plan to come into compliance by the looming deadline. According to current Chicago Buildings Commissioner Felicia Davis, "This deadline is not moving, every building, without fail, that has not met this deadline, will be referred to court."

What can be done?

If your building has not undergone a Life Safety Evaluation by a qualified, Illinois licensed professional, then you must do that first, submit a plan for approval, then wait for the city to respond. Alternatively, you can simply commit to fire sprinkler retrofit of your high rise building since that alone will suffice to pass the Life Safety Evaluation. A free consultation with United States Alliance Fire Protection (USA Fire) can help you evaluate that cost.

Contract with confidence!

USA Fire has retrofit numerous high rise structures in Chicago including the Cook County Administration Building (69 W. Washington), LaSalle Bank Building (135 S. LaSalle St) The Daley Center, and the twin residential towers at McClurg Court to name but a few. We have the experience and financial resources to handle all aspects of these complicated undertakings. We understand the invasive nature of these projects to the tenant and work to establish the delicate balance that must be reached between cost and convenience. Contact us for an appointment to evaluate your particular circumstances.

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