High-Rise Fire Citations Pit City vs State

Should the building where a fatal fire took place have had a sprinkler system? Depends who you ask

As the state fire marshal cites the owners of a Lake Shore Drive high rise for multiple violations following last week’s fatal fire, a clash is shaping up between the State of Illinois and Chicago over whose fire laws should have applied.

An exploration of the laws shows that confusion reigns, and that in many cases, not everyone agrees on what those laws require.

Illinois Fire Marshall Larry Matkaitis cited the building’s owners, Planned Property Management, for more than a dozen violations, including lack of a sprinkler system, and lack of automatic recall systems on the building’s elevators.

The victim, Shantel McCoy, died when the elevator on which she was riding, opened on the fire floor, hitting her with a blast estimated at 1500 degrees. An automated return system would have locked that elevator down on the building’s first floor when smoke alarms activated, preventing McCoy from ever going upstairs.

Neither sprinklers nor automated return systems are currently required for pre-1975 residential high-rises in Chicago, which claims home rule authority in following its own fire codes, rather than adhering to the more stringent Illinois fire laws. The state contends their law should apply.

"Sprinklers have been required in all high rise residential buildings under State law since 2002,” Matkaitis said in a statement. "The State Fire Code is the minimum fire code that must be met by Illinois municipalities with concurrent jurisdictions, including Chicago."

It has been an ongoing dispute. When six people died in a fire at County Administration Building at 69 West Washington in 2003, a state report faulted the City of Chicago for failure to follow the stricter state law. That building was not sprinklered, and the report found that the fire likely would have been extinguished in seconds if fire sprinklers had been in use.

"The City of Chicago promulgated a fire code that was less stringent than the requirements of the state fire code," the report from James Lee Witt and Associates stated. "The City of Chicago should institute an annual review of its Municipal Code, to ensure its compliance with state law and regulations. The City of Chicago should require installation of automatic fire sprinkler systems in high rise buildings."

But the authors of the report also faulted the state for failure to enforce its own laws.

"The Office of the State Fire Marshal did not effectively inform jurisdictions within the State of Illinois that changes were made to the State Fire Code in January 2002," the authors wrote. "There is ambiguity within the Office of the State Fire Marshal, regarding the State’s authority to enforce state fire codes within home rule jurisdictions."

Indeed, on Thursday, when asked about the continuing dispute between Chicago and the State of Illinois, the Chicago Law Department cited Chicago’s home rule powers.

"The city believes that our fire code is as strong, or in a lot of ways, stronger than the state’s code," said Roderick Drew, a law department spokesman. "Home rule authority gives us the ability to enforce our code."

Drew added that "both the City of Chicago and State Fire Marshal share the same important goal of ensuring that all buildings have adequate fire safety features."

Chicago officials insist that in many ways their code is superior to the state’s laws. For example, the Chicago code requires individual apartments to be capable of containing a fire so it doesn’t spread to other units. Plus, they note the state code does not insist on sprinklers in all cases, but rather sprinklers or "an approved engineered life safety system."

A city official speaking on background, noted that modifications which include either sprinklers or other safety devices is now on the books, and that building owners have been given until 2015 to complete retrofits.

Not all home rule communities share the opinion that following the state code is optional. Peoria, which has both home rule authority and high rises, follows the Illinois Fire Code.

"We don’t soften anything," said Chief Melanie Anderson, adding that when it comes to sprinklers, “we’re up to snuff on anything that has residential in it."

Anderson said she was shocked when she learned through news reports that a building resident had ridden an elevator to her death in the Lake Shore Drive high rise.

"When I read that I just cringed," she said. "That’s not supposed to happen any more."

Three years ago, Fire Marshal David Foreman wrote a letter to all mayors and managers across Illinois, informing them that they were expected to follow the law.

"The LSC applies to all localities, including home rule units," Foreman wrote. "It is the responsibility and duty of the local governmental authority to ensure such standards are being followed, or to adopt a code that provides equivalent fire safety."

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