I am writing about an urgent topic that concerns everyone living in Chicago. The Illinois State Fire Marshal is attempting to enact new regulations that could trump Chicago’s right to govern itself–a power known as “Home Rule.” These regulations would impose huge unnecessary costs on condominium owners, renters, businesses, houses of worship and even single family homeowners.
Below is a summary of the proposed regulations, the reasons City officials believe they are unnecessarily burdensome and what you can do to help prevent these regulations from taking effect.
The proposed regulation would require the installation of fire sprinklers retroactively in ALL “high rise” buildings (defined as any building over 80 feet in height, see., e.g., 1122-32 W. Lunt pictured on the left).
The proposed regulations also would require fire sprinklers in bars, dancehalls, nightclubs and assembly spaces if they have open areas greater than 700 feet. Restaurants with a liquor license and dancing or live music are categorized as nightclubs under the proposed regulations. Religious buildings that are more than 700 feet in size, in which worshipers stand or sit on the floor would fall under the scope of the regulations regardless of height.
Sprinkler systems also would be required in ALL newly constructed single family homes and other residential buildings. Existing homes and residential buildings where more than half of the area is RENOVATED will be required to install sprinkler systems as well. That means if you own a single family home and renovate your basement or attic or build an addition, you potentially could be required to install a sprinkler system throughout your entire home.
Though they would not be required to install fire sprinklers, all apartment buildings that are more than three stores tall or more than ten units in size would be required to install a fire alarm system with manual pull stations(see, e.g., right) that automatically notify the fire department.
Retrofitting sprinkler systems in older buildings is enormously expensive. By one estimate, installing a sprinkler system in an apartment building constructed in the 1960s would cost approximately $35,000 per unit–more for two bedrooms, less for studios. The cost estimates rise significantly in vintage buildings, which are common in Rogers Park (see, e.g., 1205 W. Sherwin pictured on the left). Installing sprinklers in those buildings may require asbestos and lead removal, upgrades to plumbing and electrical systems, and repairs to walls and ceilings.
This cost would translate into higher rents for tenants and higher assessments for condominium owners. Moreover, installing sprinkler systems in vintage buildings imposes other intangible costs, such as impairing the architectural integrity and aesthetics of these buildings, many of which possess historic significance to the City and its citizens. And of course, it doesn’t include the very real cost to the occupants of the apartment units who would be displaced during the intensive construction period.
The requirement to install fire alarm systems with manual pull stations in all apartment buildings more than three stories in height or greater than ten units in size would require extensive improvements to those buildings. The automatic fire department notification required of those systems would result in numerous fire department responses to false alarms, which increases the risk of road accidents and unnecessary deployment of firefighting resources.
Increasing the number of fire alarm systems also increases maintenance demands on owners and inspection demands on the City and its taxpayers.
If the proposed requirements could be shown to save lives in Chicago, perhaps these enormous costs could be justified, but, in fact, the proposed requirements duplicate fire safety measures that are already in place and have proven to save lives. The City of Chicago has some of the most comprehensive fire regulations in the nation, which have led to a dramatic reduction in fire deaths over the last 30 years. In 1980, 185 people died in fire related incidents in Chicago. In 2012, only 28 people died in fires.
Since 1975, the City of Chicago has required all newly-constructed high rise buildings to be equipped with sprinkler systems. The City also requires all pre-1975 hotels, motels, shelters, dormitories and other transient residential buildings to install sprinkler systems by the end of 2016.
However, the City has not required pre-1975 apartment and condominium buildings to incur millions of dollars in costs to install sprinkler systems. Instead, Chicago through its Life Safety Evaluation Program has offered building owners and condominium associations with a viable alternative to sprinkler retrofitting, allowing these buildings to install safety upgrades, such as automatic elevator recall, fire alarm systems and hard-wired smoke detectors. City fire safety officials believe these measures are just as effective at saving lives and cost much less than sprinkler systems.
In analyzing the alleged benefit of sprinkler systems, the State Fire Marshal relies on a standard that assumes a ten-minute fire department response time. In fact, the average Chicago Fire Department response time is three minutes. Better response time, better fire equipment, better emergency care and better regulations requiring smoke detectors all have contributed to the dramatic drop in fire-related deaths greatly minimizing, if not eliminating, the need for these costly proposed regulations.
The Fire Marshal’s proposed regulations must be reviewed and approved by a committee of state legislators known as the Joint Committee on Administrative Rules (JCAR). The general public has until Monday, August 12th, to submit comments to JCAR on the Fire Marshal’s proposals.
Public comment is vital to the JCAR review process. It is only through public comments that JCAR can fully recognize the potential ramifications of these draconian rules on the homeowners, businesses and government entities that would be required to adhere to them.
State Senator Don Harmon and State Representative Tim Schmitz chair the JCAR. Several north side legislators also sit on the panel, including State Senator Ira Silverstein, State Representative Greg Harrisand State Representative Lou Lang.
I urge you to submit your comments to the co-chairs, State Senator Harmon and State Representative Schmitz at firstname.lastname@example.org or via U.S. mail to JCAR, 700 Stratton Building, Springfield, IL 62706.
I also urge you to reach out to our local legislators who sit on the panel. Below are their email addresses:
State Senator Ira Silverstein: email@example.com
State Representative Greg Harris: firstname.lastname@example.org
State Representative Lou Lang: RepLouLang@aol.com
Though she does not sit on the panel, the 49th Ward’s State Representative, Kelly Cassidy, has expressed her strong opposition to the new rules. Feel free to email State Representative Cassidy to thank her for stance: email@example.com
I will continue to keep you informed on the progress of the proposed regulations.