State and city officials held a private meeting at City Hall this week in an effort to iron out a bitter dispute over which fire code should govern the city’s vintage high rises.
The State of Illinois has long contended its fire code should take precedence. Had the building been compliant with that code, it would have been equipped with fire sprinklers and an automated return feature, which would have locked the elevators on the first floor when smoke detectors were activated.
The building, at 3130 N. Lake Shore Dr., had none of those features because under Chicago’s code they weren’t required. When fire broke out in that building January 8, Shantel McCoy was able to enter an elevator in the lobby even though fire was raging eleven floors above. She was killed instantly when the doors of the elevator opened on the fire floor.
"You know, I was heartsick," said Dan Finnegan of the Illinois Automatic Fire Alarm Association. The trade group this week blasted the Chicago fire code as "woefully inadequate".
"Since 1970, over 90,000 lives have been saved, based on what we have done as an industry and a country in that area," said Finnegan. "For some reason, the city of Chicago has not been able to keep up with the pace of advancement in national building code standards."
That reason is money. Many Chicago building owners have pushed back for years on efforts to change the fire codes because of the significant cost of retrofitting older buildings. The state, and the fire community, believe it shouldn’t be an option.
"You know, we have to pay for the protection of our lives," Finnegan said.
The State of Illinois cited the Lake Shore Drive building with 19 code violations, including lack of sprinklers. But with Chicago claiming home rule authority, it is likely the state would have to take the building’s owners to court to force compliance.
Chicago has proposed code changes which would require buildings to make a variety of improvements. Sprinklers are not mandatory in those new regulations.
Last month, the Chicago City Council extended a deadline which was about to expire until 2015.
McCoy's family has since filed a lawsuit.