BY ROBERT P. MADER Of CONTRACTOR’s staff
CHICAGO — After years of lip service, Chicago might get an ordinance requiring fire sprinkler retrofitting in existing high-rise buildings. The deaths Oct. 17 of six county workers in a locked stairwell in a fire at the Cook County Administration Building here provided the impetus to get an ordinance passed.
Fire sprinkler associations and advocacy groups immediately used the fire to spread the message that fire sprinklers save lives.
Sprinklers would have prevented the deaths that occurred when fire broke out on the 12th floor of the West Washington Street high-rise, according to the Northern Illinois Fire Sprinkler Advisory Board.
“The simple truth is that fire sprinklers save lives. Not just in high-rises but in all types of buildings,” said Tom Lia, NIFSAB’s executive director.
“If sprinklers had been present throughout the County Administration Building, there would not have been the need to evacuate the building,” Lia said. “The smoke spread would have been insignificant and the locked stairwell doors would have presented an inconvenience at worst.”
The National Fire Sprinkler Association sprang into action to have the city government recognize the need for immediate fire sprinkler legislative mandates. NFSA President John Viniello communicated with the city’s two major newspapers, Associated Press and USA Today, and he initiated the association’s Major Fire Protocol to ensure the message that the lack of fire sprinklers was the primary cause of these deaths is delivered to the public.
Lia, who is also director of the NFSA Northern Illinois Chapter, has been interviewed and quoted by most news organizations in the area. Lia and Dan Gengler, NFSA regional manager, are planning to personally contact all 50 Chicago aldermen to persuade them to take action by legislation or changing the fire codes to require fire sprinklers in high-rise buildings in the city.
In New York, NFSA Regional Manager Rich Skinner was interviewed on a local ABC-TV news broadcast covering the fire and the issue of similar risks in New York buildings. A New York City sprinkler retrofit ordinance, proposed by Mayor Michael Bloomberg, has been endorsed by real estate interests and is expected to become law by the end of the year.
“I’m proud of the actions taken by our staff at this moment of tragedy but I’m totally frustrated at the same time,” Viniello said. “This association has been continuously active over the past decade delivering the message of the need for high-rise fire sprinkler mandates to the mayor, his commissions, the Chicago media and countless local politicians. The government in that city must bear the responsibility for its inaction and endangering the lives of its citizens.”
Lia said that an “anti-sprinkler bloc” that disseminates disinformation opposes sprinklers. In his letter to Chicago newspapers, Viniello blasted opponents of sprinklers.
“Alderman Bernard Stone, chairman of the City Council Building Codes Committee, said it would be too expensive to retrofit hundreds of older high-rises,” Viniello wrote. “At a news conference on Sunday he said, ‘Sprinklers had nothing to do with this fire, the firemen did a great job in putting it out.’ This is another example of irresponsible leadership in the city of Chicago.”
James Lee Witt, former director of the Federal Emergency Management Agency, and a team of experts in fire research and fire protection have been hired to examine the inside of the County Administrative Building. The team will look at factors that contributed to the loss of life and the spread of the fire.
Gov. Rod Blagojevich and the state of Illinois retained Witt to conduct an independent investigation into what happened during the fire. Witt and his team will recommend specific actions to make sure similar events do not occur in the future.
Witt is founder and president of James Lee Witt Associates, a crisis management firm, and also serves as CEO of the International Code Council.
The county building is just one of more than 800 tall buildings in Chicago that lack the protection of automatic fire sprinkler systems, NFSA said.
In January 2002 the state of Illinois adopted the 2000 Edition of the national model code, NFPA 101, Life Safety Code, which requires existing buildings 75 ft. tall to be retrofitted with sprinkler systems. Many major metropolitan areas have passed ordinances that require sprinklers throughout existing high-rise buildings, including Atlanta and Philadelphia. According to NFSA, the cost to retrofit a high-rise building ranges between $2.50 to $3.50 per square foot.
The true cost may be higher if it includes auxiliary equipment, according to a report in the Chicago Sun-Times newspaper.
Richard Ray, president of the Cybor Fire Protection Co., testified at a City Council hearing that installing a large diameter water service from the street can cost $25,000 to $40,000 and a fire pump can run from $40,000 to $70,000.
In the current political climate, the cost may be irrelevant.
After languishing in committee for four months, a bill to require sprinklers in nightclubs, introduced by 14th Ward Alderman and Finance Committee Chairman Edward M. Burke, is on its way to passage.
After hearing that high-rise sprinkler retrofits are expensive, Burke countered, “If lives are to be saved, I don’t care how much it costs.”