Fire in John Hancock Center Condo Shows Stark Contrast in Fire Protection Between Residential and Commercial Occupancies

On the night of February 26, a fire occurred in an unsprinklered condo on the 87th floor of the John Hancock Center high-rise in Chicago. Chicago code does not require the condo units to have fire sprinklers even though the commercial occupancies within the same high-rise must be protected with fire sprinklers.

“Fortunately, no one was injured. But why is more value placed on the lives of the individuals working in the high-rise than there is on the lives of those living in it?” questions Tom Lia, executive director of the nonprofit Northern Illinois Fire Sprinkler Advisory Board.

“This was a small fire that was able to be quickly extinguished through other means, but what happens when this building suffers a major fire and lives are lost in the residential areas of the building?” adds Lia. “Even though the tourist areas of the building are sprinklered, having such a fire in a renowned Chicago high-rise would surely leave a blemish on the city’s tourism industry as well.”

The large gap in the level of fire safety between commercial and residential high-rises (or portions of high-rises) is due to the lax guidelines of Chicago’s Life Safety Evaluation (LSE) for residential high-rises. The guidelines fall well short of nationally accepted building and fire safety standards. Residential high-rises, which were required to comply with the LSE by January 1, 2015, were able to pass the evaluation without installing fire sprinklers, instead choosing less effective fire safety features.

“Fire sprinklers are the only technology that actively control a fire and provide residents with a safe route of escape,” adds Lia. “High-rise owners, residents and prospective buyers must be mindful of the presence or absence of fire safety features, especially fire sprinklers, in their buildings.”


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