Illinois Fire Marshal Withdraws Sprinkler Proposal

The change would have been the first update to the state's fire code in 11 years

State Fire Marshal Larry Matkaitis did an abrupt about-face Friday, withdrawing a proposed rule which would have required the installation of fire sprinklers in hundreds of residential high rises.

"We have received an unprecedented amount of public input and suggestions through emails, letters, and public meetings," Matkaitis said in a statement. "In the course of this process, its become clear that any proposed state rule needs additional refinements."

A state source who asked not to be named said the rule was withdrawn because the proposal did not have enough support in the Joint Committee on Administrative Rules, the legislative body in Springfield tasked with adoption or rejection of various code changes.

"You have to count the cards in front of you," he said. "We had no votes."

Lawmakers had been increasingly pressured by outraged condominium residents, who feared massive assessments for sprinkler installations. Supporters of the initiative said it fell victim to a rampant campaign of misinformation, which frightened residents with predictions of absurdly high installation charges.

"The sad truth is that the numbers that were thrown out about the true cost of a sprinkler system were way out of line," said Dennis Fleming, business manager of Sprinkler Fitters Local 281. "There was a concerted effort to cloud the facts."

Indeed, aldermen had circulated flyers, predicting installation costs of as much as $50,000 per apartment. Two town meetings held this week, were packed with angry residents, and a fire marshal's representative was shouted down at one of those sessions.

"I think the fire marshal made a good choice and absolutely right," said an elated Tim Patricio, manager of the Park Tower Condominiums on North Sheridan Road. "He wanted to improve safety. We recognize that. But we feel he was making the wrong choices."

Under the proposed rules, high-rise owners would have had 12 years to install sprinkler systems. The devices would also have been required in all new single-family homes statewide.

NBC Chicago asked one of the state's biggest contractors to perform a formal estimate on a high-rise, for comparison with the numbers being distributed to area homeowners. USA Fire Protection of Lake Forest surveyed that building, 6145 N. Sheridan Road, this week.

Their determination: the 25 story building would have cost $1,760,000 to retrofit, a unit cost of approximately $8.90 per square foot. A company official said that cost included cosmetic work to conceal pipes and other sprinkler features.

Some aldermen had been warning residents of retrofit scenarios in the same neighborhood, more than ten times that amount.

"The pricing received from the sprinkler contractor was a bit less than we anticipated," said Greg Miner of Premier Management Services, the manager of the building. "While it was not as high as some estimates being tossed about, it was still of sufficient size that it would create a financial burden for many, especially those on fixed incomes."

"The fact also remains that the project would have introduced soffits in every room," he said, "creating an unfavorable aesthetic element to the otherwise clean lines of these units."

"All in all, our clients are pleased that the matter has been withdrawn from discussion at this time."

The City of Chicago had also opposed the proposed rules, insisting that their so-called Life Safety Evaluations of high rises provided equivalent protection to sprinklers. The LSE's require surveys by licensed architects, and feature elements like two-way communications, hard-wired smoke detectors, and systems to prevent elevators from traveling to fire floors.

"The installation of smoke detectors and telecommunications equipment, none of those puts out a fire," said the union's Fleming. "Those fires won't be put out, and the fires will continue."

Copyright AP - Associated Press
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