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Fire Safety Proposal Could Cost Millions to Implement, Condo Dwellers Say

 The state fire marshal wants fire sprinklers in all city buildings taller than four stories.
High-rise Fire Sprinklers
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EDGEWATER — Owners of high-rises throughout Chicago could be required to install costly fire sprinkler systems under proposed changes to state fire safety rules introduced late last month.

Illinois State Fire Marshal Larry Matkaitis said all residential and business buildings taller than four stories — regardless of age — should be refitted with sprinkler systems within the next 12 years.

Churches, restaurants and any other building used for gatherings of 50 or more people would be required to add the sprinklers within five years.

Lawmakers and building owners say installing the systems in older buildings could cost millions of dollars.

Some even said the proposed change to state rules was a "sneaky" maneuver that, if successful, would be a windfall for contractors and sprinkler manufacturers.

"It’s a fairly naked attempt to bypass the legislative process," said state Rep. Kelly Cassidy, who represents parts of Uptown, Edgewater and Rogers Park. "There’s a place where common sense has to prevail."

Cassidy said she and 39 other members of the House signed a resolution chastising the marshal for pursuing rules that place "an undue burden" on residents.

State officials said the sprinklers saved lives and were worth the cost.

The City of Chicago passed the Life Safety Ordinance in 2004 that required more stringent safety features in high-rises, but did not require sprinklers for buildings built before 1975.

Cassidy said the city and Matkaitis have had an ongoing debate about whether Chicago's fire safety code satisfied state requirements.

The marshal's office said the city falls short.

"Chicago’s code is not as stringent as ours," which is a violation of state law, said Ken Wood, a fire protection engineer and spokesman for the marshal. "The state fire marshal made them aware [of the need] to comply with the state code years ago."

Chicago Fire Department spokesman Larry Langford said the city's ordinance provided a "reasonable and practical basis of protection" for high-rises and "to require sprinklers in all new residential structures is not reasonable."

The new rules, proposed to the state's Joint Committee on Administrative Rules on June 28, add the 12-year deadline for sprinkler implementation. A 45-day public comment period is now underway. The committee must approve any changes before they would go into effect.

Rep. Greg Harris (D-Chicago), who sits on the committee made up of 12 state legislators, said his team was still analyzing the marshal's proposal.

Before the committee makes a decision, however, it would decide whether Chicago could override the state's requirements regarding fire codes.

Dozens of angry condo owners gathered Tuesday night at Park Tower, a 56-story condo building at 5415 N. Sheridan Road, to launch a grassroots effort to block the proposal.

"I like to tell myself this is extremely unrealistic. There would be a revolt. We need to create that revolt," said Park Tower manager Tim Patricio, who encouraged residents to write and call local representatives.

Patricio said city officials told him that more than 700 buildings in Chicago would need to be retrofitted if the rules were ratified. At Park Tower alone, he said, a third of the residents are elderly or disabled and would have trouble paying for a sprinkler system.

"You're putting these people on the street, and you're saying that's not destroying a life?" said Patricio.

One consultant, he said, estimated the cost between $15 million and $30 million to outfit the building's lobby, its hallways and its 744 units with sprinklers.

Last year, the Park Tower was targeted by the state marshal's office after a small fire in the building, he said. Ever since, the building's legal counsel has been fighting citations, arguing that the building complies with city code and is not beholden to the state code.

The new rules could be a "game-changer," Patricio said, and would complicate their legal argument.

Angello Ladas said he only remembered two fires and one fatality at Park Tower in his 16 years as a resident.

"You can't expect a building like this to install sprinklers," he said. "Who's going to cover the rest of the cost? It would bankrupt the building."

Sheli Lulkin, president of a condo owner coalition along North Sheridan Road, said the fire marshal was "sneaky" by proposing the rule changes on the Friday before the Fourth of July.

"It's very hard for us to catch up, but we are catching up," said Lulkin, of her organizing efforts.

But others welcomed the push.

Tom Lia, the director of the Northern Illinois Fire Sprinkler Advisory Board, which advocates for the use of fire sprinklers, said the current state fire marshal has been the only marshal in a decade "with the guts and conviction" to enforce state codes in the City of Chicago.

The Chicago fire safety ordinance, Lia says, is inadequate.

He also the said the cost of implementing sprinklers in a high-rise was often inflated by opponents.

"The point all along is that what the city passed was something to placate the residents — to make them feel that they're in a safe residence." he said. "They’re not."