Fire sprinkler group says Chicago is stalling

by Robert P. Mader Of Contractor's Staff CHICAGO Following a fatal October 2003 fire at the Cook County Administration Building here, passage of a high-rise fire sprinkler retrofit law seemed to be gaining momentum. That momentum, however, is grinding to a halt. First, the Chicago Building Committee voted Sept. 23 to defer a vote on a sprinkler ordinance for another 30 days. The nonprofit Northern

by Robert P. Mader
Of Contractor's Staff

CHICAGO — Following a fatal October 2003 fire at the Cook County Administration Building here, passage of a high-rise fire sprinkler retrofit law seemed to be gaining momentum. That momentum, however, is grinding to a halt.

First, the Chicago Building Committee voted Sept. 23 to defer a vote on a sprinkler ordinance for another 30 days. The nonprofit Northern Illinois Fire Sprinkler Advisory Board accused the committee of stalling.

Now the city is circulating a proposal that would allow high-rise buildings to install other life-safety measures such as fire-rated doors in lieu of sprinklers.

Following the Cook County Administration Building fire, Mayor Richard Daley and Alderman Edward Burke introduced separate sprinkler ordinances. Daley's ordinance requires all commercial buildings be retrofitted. It does not include residential buildings and designated landmarks. It gives commercial buildings until 2016 to comply.

Burke's ordinance requires sprinklers in all high-rise buildings, commercial and residential. Burke's law requires fire sprinklers to be installed by 2008 and would follow the recommendations of the Chicago High Rise Commission, the Tri-Data Study, the Federal Emergency Management Agency's "America Burning" report, FEMA's Residential Initiative and FEMA's Life Safety Summit Report 2004 for the protection of firefighters.

"I don't know why members of the Building Committee need more facts," said Tom Lia, executive director of NIFSAB. "Both the city of Chicago and Cook County have invested heavily in studying and analyzing high-rise fires.

In the next couple of weeks we expect to hear the same conclusions from the State Fire Report prepared by James Lee Witt. By deferring, the city continues to put people's lives at risk when they know the facts."

The Cook County panel, chaired by former federal judge Abner Mikva, in July released its report on the Cook County Administration Building fire that concluded that if the building had had fire sprinklers, there would have been no fatalities.

The panel's final report echoes the NIFSAB's position that retrofitting pre-1975 high-rises with automatic fire sprinkler systems would have a major impact on public safety, Lia said. More than 800 high-rise buildings in the city currently are unsprinklered.

The Cook County report also confirms the findings from the 1999 Chicago High-Rise Commission Report, which says that fire sprinklers save the lives of occupants and firefighters, Lia said.

The High-Rise Commission Report from 1999 states that the rate of fire deaths in Chicago's high-rise buildings is 3.5 times greater than the national average. The commission recommended sprinkler retrofits over a 20-year period. A $400,000 city study by the Tri-Data Co. also recognized the high-rise fire problem and recommended fire sprinklers be retrofit in a five-to 10-year phase-in plan.

Then the city came up with its Life Safety Evaluation procedure, which is part of Daley's ordinance. An evaluation is required of any residential building owner who chooses not to retrofit with fire sprinklers. Lia, however, said the scoring system, developed by an engineering consultant, gives an advantage to fire-rated stairwells, doors, corridors and floors, enhanced exiting capacity, smoke control and removal systems, voice alarms, enunciator panels and hard-wired fire detection systems.

Lia told CONTRACTOR that he believes the Building Owners and Managers Association, real estate lobbyists, and associations representing apartment owners and managers have lobbied the mayor and his staff.

Aldermen praised the Life Safety Evaluation procedure when it was passed out by the city, according to a story in the Chicago Sun-Times newspaper. The story contained cost estimates of the sprinkler-less building improvements with data provided by the city's Department of Construction and Permits.

Lia said he was incredulous at the numbers. According to the Department of Construction and Permits, it would cost $5.1 million to install sprinklers in a 20-unit building at 5490 S. South Shore Drive — $255,000 per unit. Lia said he believes the 39-story Cook County Administration Building is costing about that much to retrofit after the fire, and the county asked that the work be done on an accelerated schedule.

But such cost claims are nothing new. According to the National Fire Protection Association, it costs up to $3.50 per sq. ft. to retrofit sprinklers, but real estate interests say it's $10 per sq. ft. The most expensive retrofit that NIFSAB can find is the 1996 retrofit of the Union League Club in Chicago for $4.75 per sq. ft.. The $10 per sq. ft. figure was also rejected by a blue ribbon county panel investigating the administration building fire.

TAGS: Piping