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January Fire Fatality Proves That Thousands of Chicago Residents Are Not Safe From High-Rise Fires

According to the Northern Illinois Fire Sprinkler Advisory Board (NIFSAB), the high-rise fire that killed one resident and injured nine others including two firefighters on January 8, 2012, calls into question the effectiveness of the City of Chicago’s 2004 high-rise fire safety ordinance. It requires all residential high-rise buildings built prior to 1975 that do not have fire sprinklers to pass a City of Chicago Life Safety Evaluation.

NFPA 101: Life Safety Code

According to Tom Lia, NIFSAB’s Executive Director, the Chicago Life Safety Evaluation (LSE) program falls well short of the national standard of safety, NFPA 101: Life Safety Code, which is the code referenced by the James Lee Witt Report following the deadly Cook County Administration Building high-rise fire of 2003. NFPA 101 requires fire sprinklers in all high-rise buildings in excess of 75 feet and has been adopted by the Office of the Illinois State Fire Marshal. Chicago’s LSE is essentially a “watered down” version of NFPA 101 and does not address all of the key issues in high-rise fire safety.

Proof that Chicago’s LSE does fall short was a fire on December 10, 2009, on the thirty-sixth floor of the building at 260 East Chestnut that claimed the life of an 84-year-old woman. Prior to the fire, that building had passed the City of Chicago LSE.

LISTEN:  Tom Lia’s interview on WLS 890AM’s “Roe & Roeper Show” (9m 19s).

LISTEN:  WBBM Newsradio 780’s report on high-rise fire safety compliance (0m 43s).

Lia said that the City of Chicago needs to enforce the ordinance. Records show that 76% of the buildings that did file their LSE plans failed to achieve the standards set forth by the Department of Buildings. Violations can be punishable with fines that range between $500 and $1,000. No buildings have been fined for non-compliance. As of December 2009, the City failed to collect nearly $23 million in potential fines.

Instead, the city extended the compliance deadline. The 2004 ordinance included a seven-year period for building owners to comply and repair any deficiencies by 2012. In December, the Chicago City Council passed an ordinance to extend the compliance deadline to 2015. That is three additional years residents will live with a higher fire risk.

“Especially now that the city extended the compliance deadline, they should require building owners to follow NFPA 101: Life Safety Code, which has been adopted by the Illinois State Fire Marshal,” Lia said.

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