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High-Rise Sprinkler Proposal Slammed By Condo Dwellers

By Benjamin Woodard | August 1, 2013 9:04am
 The State Fire Marshal wants fire sprinklers in all Chicago high-rises.
High-rise Fire Sprinklers
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ROGERS PARK — The temperature of the room was nearly too hot for Illinois State Fire Marshal representative Ken Wood.

He was nearly booed from the podium by a crowded room full of condo dwellers who said they would be bankrupted if forced to install fire sprinklers in their homes, as proposed by fire marshal Larry Matkaitis.

"I fully appreciate that I might be the the most hated person in the room," said Wood, standing in for Matkaitis, who was on vacation.

Matkaitis has proposed new fire safety rules requiring that all Chicago high-rises — regardless of age — install fire sprinkler systems. Newly constructed single-family homes would also need sprinklers, as would existing homes that were renovated.

More than 120 people packed into a room on Loyola University's Rogers Park campus to hear from Wood, city reps, aldermen and members of the Illinois General Assembly.

"Honestly, this is second only to marriage equality and pension in terms of volume of constituent contact that we've gotten," said state Rep. Kelly Cassidy (D-14th). "This has really taken off in the last two weeks."

Cassidy and state Rep. Greg Harris (D-13th) said hundreds of phone calls and letters had been pouring in since the rules were proposed on June 28.

"I've had people come into my office and literally break down in tears of fear of what this could mean for them," said Harris, a member of the Legislature's Joint Committee on Administrative Rules, which will make the final decision on whether the proposed rule changes become law.

High-rise dweller Laura Carl hand-delivered a letter to Harris during the meeting. She said she would have to move out of Illinois if she were required to pay thousands of dollars to install sprinklers in her unit on the 30th floor of Park Tower, 5415 N. Sheridan Road.

It would wipe out her retirement savings, the 71-year-old said.

"I would have to sell everything," said Carl, who attended the town hall meeting with her 79-year-old sister. "I don't see how one could promote this. I'm more afraid of the guns on the street."

Even though building owners say the sprinklers could cost up to $50,000 a unit to install, proponents contend the retrofits would likely cost under $10,000 a unit.

Nonetheless, state officials said the sprinklers would save lives and were worth the cost.

No one else in the room, except for a few pipefitters and contractors, agreed.

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

"Chicago building code, as it stands today, is pretty comprehensive and provides a substantial degree of safety from the devastation of fire," said Asif Rahman, deputy commissioner for the Department of Buildings.

Grant Ullrich, a city attorney, argued that the state Fire Marshal didn't even have jurisdiction over Chicago, due to "home rule," which allows large municipalities to tailor their own codes.

Chicago Fire Captain Mike Norris said he's fought high-rise fires in Chicago for decades.

"We have probably the best fire department in the country, if not the world," he said. "That's all I've got to say."

The 45-day public comment period for the proposed rule changes ends Aug. 12. A public hearing will be held at 1 p.m. Tuesday in Springfield. The City Council passed a resolution last week requesting Matkaitis appear before the council for questioning.