Woman's Death Puts Fire Code Under Scrutiny

Older Chicago buildings not required to follow updated fire codes

By Phil Rogers
|  Monday, Jan 9, 2012  |  Updated 9:51 PM CDT
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Controversy continues to swirl around Chicago's fire safety code, after a woman died in a weekend blaze on North Lake Shore Drive.

Controversy continues to swirl around Chicago's fire safety code, after a woman died in a weekend blaze on North Lake Shore Drive.

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More than eight years after six people died in a high rise fire at the Cook County Administration Building at 69 West Washington, controversy continues to swirl around Chicago's fire safety code, after a woman died in a weekend blaze on North Lake Shore Drive.

The victim, Shantel McCoy, was killed when she rode an elevator to the burning 12th floor of a building in the 3100 block of North Lake Shore Drive. The fire department says a resident of the building was calling in the fire, even as the woman was boarding the elevator and the fire department arrived just minutes later.

Under a stringent code approved by the National Fire Protection Association and adopted by the State of Illinois, the building would have been equipped with sprinklers, and elevators which would have descended to the lobby and locked down when the smoke alarms in the building began to sound. But Chicago does not recognize the code, and does not require such safety technology in buildings constructed before 1975.

"All high rise buildings should be sprinklered," says Elgin safety consultant Jim Schifilliti, who also firmly believes that had the building had the auto return feature on its elevators as is required under the more stringent NFPA code, McCoy would still he alive.

"Absolutely. She wouldn't have been able to get on the elevator," Schifilliti said.

Responding to outcries from building owners that retro-fitting older buildings would be too expensive, Chicago instead required the submission of detailed Life Safety Evaluation plans. Many of those filings have been years overdue, and just last month, the City Council extended the deadline for modifications approved in those plans until 2015 -- 12 years after the County Building fire.

Under terms of the Chicago law, sprinklers and auto return systems still are not mandated. Instead, each plan is scored by building inspectors. Auto return systems do help deliver a higher score, increasing the chance of approval, but building officials say they are not required and that buildings can get approval without either sprinklers, or the elevator systems which have been common in many cities for decades.

While the state mandates such systems in the Illinois code, Chicago exercises its home rule power in opting out.

"State rules should override city rules or home rule, when there's life safety involved," Schifilliti insists.

"The cost of it is your biggest hindrance," said Tom Skweres, of the Apartment Buildings Owners and Managers Association, who noted that retrofitting some older buildings would cost hundreds of thousands, even millions of dollars.

"I still think every building should be sprinklered," Skweres said, but he noted that the defining issue for many of his members was the expense.

Asked what the impact would be if the city mandated sprinklers and auto-return systems in older buildings, Skweres said, "I think every building would jump on the bandwagon and do it, but I think it would be a financial burden on every building."

Skweres says his own company recently retrofitted a vintage 80 unit building, at a cost of about $250,000. Those costs, he said, can vary widely, depending on building construction.

The cause of the weekend fire is still under investigation.

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