Sustainably Speaking
Live burn demonstration is eye-opening

Live burn demonstration is eye-opening

This month I had the opportunity to see, in person, a burn demonstration at Xylem’s Little Red School House. It was a very eye-opening experience to see how fast a fire spreads and how fast a sprinkler system can put a fire out. In theory I have always thought that fire sprinklers make sense when it comes to protecting lives and property, and seeing the burn demonstration verified my thoughts on this.

After the event, I decided to look up information on the City of Chicago’s Municipal Code regarding fire sprinkler systems in residential buildings. Ever since moving to Chicago I’ve had an interest in this topic, not only because I write articles for CONTRACTOR about policies on the state and local level regarding fire sprinkler systems, but also because the apartments I’ve lived in here do not have sprinkler systems, which at times gives me a somewhat uneasy feeling.   

My first apartment was in an 18-story mid-rise building. I lived on the 18th floor, right near the  exit, but this was always disconcerting to me since I was on the top floor. If a fire ever broke out, I would have to pass a floor/apartment that would be on fire. Now I’ve moved, and I live on the second floor of a 10-story renovated hotel built in the 1920s. It’s a pretty neat building, and I read that it has a connection to the St. Valentine’s Day Massacre. That’s pretty cool if you are a mob buff, but once again there are no fire sprinklers installed. However, I’m lucky to be on the second floor. If need be, I have access to the roof of the first floor, and I can always jump if ever trapped. Of course, I would probably break an arm or leg, but I rather deal with those consequences than the possibility of being burned or die in a fire.

So given all these thoughts on my mind, I did some research, finding out that the City Council of the City of Chicago recently voted to amend Section 13-196-206 of the Municipal Code, changing the effective date from 2012 to 2015 for compliance of life safety evaluation of existing high rise buildings. The City Council unanimously passed the substitute ordinance 49-0 on Dec. 14, 2011.

According to the City of Chicago website, a summary of the key provisions of the LSE and high rise ordinance include for commercial: pre-1975 or pre-fire ordinance buildings will require a sprinkler system that can be installed in three phases over 12 years (starting 2005 and ending 2017); that there are approximately 200 commercial pre-ordinance buildings affected; landmarked buildings are generally exempt from the requirement; and pre-1975 residential buildings are exempt from the requirement.

It is also noted on the website that all high rises that are exempt from having sprinklers are required to submit a LSE, which reviews the existing life safety features of the building and establishes a commitment to repair any deficiencies. Based on the evaluation, buildings may need to upgrade life safety components or install a fire sprinkler system.

Living in a building that meets the LSE does not make me feel any more protected if a fire ever breaks out. Just seeing how everything was so quickly engulfed in flames at the burn demonstration verifies these feelings. The only almost sure way to protect lives from a fire is via a fire sprinkler system.

I do realize the argument: that installing a fire sprinkler system is an expense. And of course there is the personal liberty argument. However, as most things do, it all comes down to money. And I’m sure if building owners need to do this, tenants will end up paying for the cost in the long run (rents will increase). However, if I am willing to pay extra in rent for amenities, I would definitely be willing to pay extra in rent for something that will protect my life and property. I think this is much more important than a gym or pool (this is coming from a swimmer that would love to have a pool at her apartment).    

As I researched this topic, I spoke to some industry professionals, and here is what they had to say about Chicago’s LSE:

“With little or no enforcement of the high rise ordinance over the last seven years, now is the time for the building owners and managers to decide on doing it right and installing fire sprinklers as their first choice instead of alternative ways of passing the LSE,” said Tom Lia, executive director of Northern Illinois Fire Sprinkler Advisory Board. “We have to know that the LSE is a false or water downed LSE as compared to the NFPA Life Safety Evaluation. The developers of this weak LSE purposely reduced the points given to fire sprinklers to allow a building to pass without them. Fires at 260 East Chestnut and others prove that passing the LSE does not make your building fire safe.”

According to Buddy Dewar, who testified in 2004 before Chicago’s Committee on Buildings and advised them of flaws in the LSE and is vice president of regional operations at the National Fire Sprinkler Association, the national safety standard of care is the National Fire Protection Association Life Safety Code, the NFPA 101 the national standard for care used throughout the U.S. for new and existing properties to ensure a base level of safety is in place for all occupancy uses.

“The Chicago LSE is faulty because the parameter values that are in the NFPA 101A were altered and manipulated,” said Dewar. “The parameter values in the Chicago LSE reflects the importance of Type I construction 700% higher than the parameter values established in NFPA 101A Alternatives to Life Safety while the importance of fire sprinklers remained the same. If the parameter values for fire sprinklers were also increased by 700% there may not have been a problem, but the parameter values are the same for sprinklers in the Chicago LSE and the NFPA 101A FSES.”

I e-mailed and called some of the Chicago City Council members that voted on the substitute ordinance to find out why they voted to extend the date and if they believe meeting the minimum of the LSE is comparable to a fire sprinkler system, but they did not respond.

I may blog more about this topic in the future, so stay tuned… 



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